BWW Review: KATHLEEN FERRIER AWARDS 2019 FINAL, Wigmore Hall
Ripe for their first outing in the opera market, this year's Kathleen Ferrier Awards' six finalists are closer to the core of their artistic prowess than many of current opera's vocalists.
Attentive to all ornaments, changes of tempi and dynamics in their scores, they haven't yet arrived at that inevitable platform at which many singers ultimately disembark: sacrificing vocal purity for characterisation.
Beginning with an a cappella performance of the traditional song "I will give my love an apple", counter-tenor Tim Morgan made ample use of his expansive register to yield gently timid crescendi and soothing diminuendi.
Approaching his six pieces with perhaps excessive caution, there were moments when he surreptitiously snuck in unwanted breaths between two notes across a word like "freeze" in Purcell's song "Sweeter than Roses". Yet for the most part, what emerged were clean, rapid staccatos and crystal-clear coloratura - long, running notes - that percolated the Handel aria "Furibondo spira il vento" from the opera Partenope.
In possession of a colossal mezzo instrument, whose edge resounds with the exquisite buzz of a vibrato crafted carefully to lend climactic notes their sentiment, Maria Ostroukhova lined the words of "O mio Fernando" from Donizetti's La favorita with unbridled, resistant pugnacity, making full use of her darkest chest voice.
She tackled the differing tempi over perfectly performed coloratura with varying levels of frenzy; if at times forsaking potentially more contemplative, introspective moments in Leonora's imploring of the heavens ("Piombi, gran Dio, la folgor tua su me": "O God, let your thunderbolt fall on me") for a more brazen and demanding cry for help.
Her belligerence was quickly scrapped in favour of a different approach to Ravel's sensuous, mystical prayer, "Kaddisch" from Deux mélodies hébraïques: a song performed in the ancient Semitic language of Aramaic. Its gradual diminuendi enrobed Ostroukhova's naturally ponderous voice in a veil of servility, demonstrating her ability to lend the instrument an ethereal, wondrous quality.
Artistic flexibility was further proven in the elastic dynamics Ostroukhova used throughout John Alden Carpenter's song "The Player Queen": a work the Russian-born Ostroukhova sang with crisp, inarguable English diction. It seemed clear that she would take home either First or Second Prize, and maybe even the addition of the Ferrier Loveday Song Prize.
This was not to be.
Baritone Theodore Platt offered his works the authoritative, cavernous timbre of an invariably incorruptible voice. Varnishing his performance of Rachmaninov's "Ja bil u nei" ("I was with her") with ominous prescience, Platt nevertheless subjected his voice to excessive use of sudden forte and fortissimo; an exercise which rendered his artistry at times homogeneous.
While he was mostly able to defy the breath control challenges of Mozart's "Deh! Vieni alla finestra" from Don Giovanni, certain high notes were strained. It was in the bellicosity of his middle register throughout Duparc's song "Le manoir de Rosemonde" that Platt highlighted the expression most inherent to his register: the acrimony of a spurned lover.
His approach to the Rachmaninov romance "Vchera myi stretilis" ("Yesterday we met") could have been more tender; he could have avoided, for instance, too harsh a lean on the Cyrillic letter "x" ("ha") in the phrase "V glazakh potuh ogon'" ("In her eyes the flame has been extinguished"). It came as a surprise therefore that judges gave him Second Place.
Assuming the stage with superlative professionalism, bass-baritone Adam Maxey startled the audience with his intimidating great instrument. By far the most naturally gifted of the finalists, Maxey was also the singer who took the most risks, opting to poetically enjamb the first three lines of "Quand la flamme de l'amour" from Bizet's La Jolie Fille de Perth: performing the words in one breath. The haphazard, insouciant attitude of his singing meticulously embodied the character's wantonness.
Incarnating the devil in conversation with himself, Nick Shadow from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, the bass-baritone alternated between the two "personages" with distinctly contrasting vocal inflections and tempi in the dialogue "I was never saner" that becomes the aria "In youth the panting slave pursues". The swift alterations between the two halves of the hybrid created a fearsome sound fearsome. Maxey followed these with risky delayed entrances into vocal lines to create disjointed rhythms emblematic of the musical era.
In this particular competition, however, no points were awarded for this calibre of innovation - or, at least, too few: Maxey went home with nothing.
The most prepared of all the singers, mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska sustained the rabid tempi of "Anderò, volerò, griderò" from Vivaldi's Orlando, finto pazzo with supreme accuracy. Her coloratura, though at times rushed, was for the most part expertly treated.
Throughout other works, however, such as Purcell's "Sweeter than Roses", some intervals between notes became slides from one onto the other for the purpose of dramatic effect; breathiness was inserted and notes sounded affected. Deliberate accentuation on the penultimate syllable of most lines in Gounod's "Depuis hier... Que fais-tu, blanche torterelle?" from Roméo et Juliette resulted in a certain lack of spontaneity.
Superbly crafted were the dynamics (and the American twang) of John Harbison's "Waiting" - Myrtle Wilson's rancorous scolding of her lover from the composer's opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Here the crescendi were long drawn-out and complemented the portentous intervals and harmonies of the 1999 work. Despite some muffled Russian diction in Medtner's song "Twilight", Nikolovska's performance in "Waiting" and well-crafted tempi and breath control in the execution of Schubert's "Rastlose Liebe" justified her win of the Song Prize.
That said, she and Maria Ostroukhova could have easily shared it.
Taking the beloved "O du, mein holder Abendstern" at a painfully laboured, slow pace, baritone Benson Wilson appeared to be taming his sumptuous instrument a little too much for the celestial work. With a staid approach to the aria that relied on rather conventional techniques of expression - sudden diminuendi and abrupt slowdowns - Wilson stuck to these throughout his other works. While his middle register was manifestly robust in George Butterworth's song "Is my team ploughing?", certain piano notes in the head voice had too affected an air.
In the grandiose aria "O Carlo, ascolta... Io morrò, ma lieto in core", Rodrigo's dying aria from Verdi's Don Carlo, Wilson slid up the notes of "ma...dre" and performed an overly dramatic fortissimo on "Ah!". More variation of dynamics would have better served him, and it was apparent that his current style is better suited to the song and romance repertoire than portraits of specific characters in opera roles.
Yet for reasons that remain beyond this critic's understanding, his was the First Prize. Creativity and risks proved in this instance to be monetarily unworthy; old-style means of emotivity assured the victory - the sum of £12,500.
Thus it seemed this evening that the singers, while performing with expert professionalism, fell prey to the hands of judges: veterans in opera singing, amateurs in these kinds of selections.
Photo: [from left to right]: Theodore Platt, Ema Nikolovska, Ella O'Neill (winner of the Accompanist's Prize) and Benson Wilson by Emma Brown