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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

Montreal International Music Competition Finals: Day Two

By Joseph So May 18, 2005

This is going to date me — remember that TV commercial with Ella Fitzgerald’s voice on a Memorex tape, cracking a champagne glass, the catch phrase being "Is it Live or Memorex"? Well, don’t you believe it! If there is one thing I learned from listening to webcasts, there is nothing like a live experience when it comes to gauging a voice. The placement of the microphones, the acoustics of the hall —whether it is full or empty, the skill of the sound engineers, and of course the basic qualities of the voice itself, all have something to do with whether a singer is better live or on tape (or over the airwaves). On the radio or the internet, it is difficult to tell the size of the voice. Often, an obtrusive vibrato or tremolo is obvious over the air, but in the theatre it is much less pronounced. Tapes and studio performances tend to favor smaller, well-focused voices, but in a large hall, these voices can sound underpowered and swarmed by the orchestra. Sopranos with very bright sound may come across as shrill. On the other hand, dramatic sopranos or heldentenors often sound a little rough over the airwaves due to the close miking - every tiny imperfection that would go unnoticed in the hall is magnified by the microphone. According to some voice aficionados, Salle Pierre-Mercure where the semis took place show off the voices better than the very crisp but somewhat cold and bright acoustics of Theatre Maisonneuve. But at the end of the day, the singer with a great voice and the ability to communicate, and who is able to deliver under pressure, will move to the head of the line no matter what. On balance, all vocal performances should be experienced live. So if you are in the Montreal area, the remaining sessions are well worth attending.

Such is the luck of the draw — tonight’s lineup were all women:

Christina Stelmacovich — mezzo-soprano (Canada)

Haydn — Lachrymoso — Stabat Mater

Mozart — Ch’io mi scordidi te? Non temer, amato bene

Purcell — When I am laid in Earth — Dido and Aeneas

Mahler — Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen — Rückert Lieder

Rossini — Non piu mesta — La Cenerentola

Her voice has quite a nice timbre, and she excels in slow, quiet, introspective music that allowed her to show off her legato. But without sufficient variety, a program can get monotonous. Ideally, a winning program should have a variety of styles that shows off a singer’s versatility. Here her singing lacks a strong sense of personality, not helped by a rather small top, limited agility and a weak trill. Haydn that opened the program suited her and she did it well. The Mozart was correct and pleasant, but bland. I did like her Mahler — a lovely, poised reading of this transcendental piece. Unfortunately, she has the bad habit of beating time with her hands, which is very distracting to the audience — this is something she should correct for the future. Her low-key approach resulted in a dull and underpowered Non piu mesta, marred by a very unfortunate mishap in intonation in the final cadenza, only a few measures from the end of her program. But such is the hazards of a competition — one just doesn’t know how the voice will respond in any given night!

Shannon Mercer (soprano)

Handel — Rejoice greatly — Messiah

Strauss —Morgen

Mozart — O temerario Arbace

Massenet — Adieu, notre petite table — Manon

Rossini — Una voce poco fa — Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Her recent studies in Vienna with Margaret Singer seem to have paid huge dividends — Shannon Mercer is sounding better than ever. Her soubrette voice has gained depth and colour, while maintaining her agility. She warmed up with Handel, and by ‘Morgen’, she hit her stride, offering a very lovely, poised account of this great song. The Mozart was done with good breath line, and a very nice cadenza. The voice is modest in size, and in the climactic moments of the Manon aria, she was swarmed by the orchestra. To my ears, the Massenet was the least successful of the five. The best singing (and acting) was predictably ‘Una voce poco fa’. She impressed the audience with her lovely timbre, sparkling coloratura in breakneck speed, and a highly engaging stage persona — altogether a winning performance.

Peiyi Wang (mezzo-soprano)

Duruflé- Pie Jesu — Requiem

Meyerbeer — Nobles seigneurs, salut! — Les Huguenots

Mahler — Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht — Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Massenet — Va! Laisse couler mes larmes — Werther

Mozart — Chi’o mi scordi di te… Non temer amato bene

Wang started tentatively, sounding ill at ease and with a noticeable tremolo in the Durufle Requiem. But she warmed up quickly. By the Huguenots aria, the voice sounded assured and she sang with more personality. Stylistically, her Mahler was not to everyone’s taste — her voice with its fruity timbre is not ideal for this music. The Mozart went quite a lot better. To my ears, the best singing was ‘Va! Laisse couler mes larmes" from Werther. She brought out all the emotional anguish of Charlotte vividly.

Lauren Skuce (soprano)

Orff — Stetit puella — Carmina Burana

Strauss — Beim Schlafengehen — Vier letzte Lieder

Mozart — Dove sono — Le Nozze di Figaro

Puccini — Tu, che di gel sei cinta — Turandot

Verdi — E strano! Ah fors’e lui…Sempre libera — La Traviata

Perhaps more than the other contestants this evening, Skuce is the complete artist — combining an exceptional voice, strong musicianship, solid technique, and glamorous stage presence. But on this particular occasion, she was clearly not at her best. I remember her coughing during the semi-finals, and it seemed to have gotten worse this evening. And her extremely demanding, crazy quilt of a program did not do her any favours. Variety is good, but if you are not in top form, it is actually damaging. Intonation problems plagued her ‘Dove sono’ with long stretches sung a touch flat. And she was short-breathed all evening, not helped by the positively glacial tempo adopted by Daniel Lipton. She had to snatch extra breaths to get through ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, a trial by fire for anyone not in top form. And she had to work hard to get the high notes in the Strauss and the Verdi, coughing just before reaching for the high E-flat in Sempre libera. She ended the program with a very dramatic Tu, che di gel sei cinta. But the audience still loved her.

As a result, there was no clear winner tonight. In my book, it is a toss up between American Lauren Skuce, an enormously gifted singer who had an off night (but was able to dig deep and impress the audience), and Canadian Shannon Mercer, a singer with more limited gifts but was in top form.

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