In case you hadn't noticed, the 2011 Cardiff Singer of the World competition is under way. The BBC is broadcasting the heats on radio and TV all week, mostly with a delay, and the final will be shown live on Sunday.
Reader Carole is on the spot in Cardiff, and has kindly undertaken to keep us updated. Right now she's watching Round 2 of the main competition, which will be televised tomorrow night.
But for her first report, Carole covers the Song Competion heats and Round 1 of the main contest. Check it out below (SPOILER ALERT if you're watching on TV!)
"In the first two heats of the Song Competition we saw what I consider to be three good singers.
The Russian mezzo, Olesya Petrova (who doesn't look much like her photo), sounds too operatic to be a natural lieder singer, and I didn't like her in Mahler, but she was very impressive in a song by Tchaikovsky, and finished with a nicely contrasting performance of a humorous song by Shostakovich.
Olga Kindler seemed more successful at modifying a powerful voice for the purposes of lieder. She also had what seemed to me to be a very ambitious programme - after two shortish songs by Granados and Rakhmaninov she performed a cantata by Schoenberg, Song of the Wood Dove from the Gurre-Lieder. This was absolutely gripping, and was one of the two performances to be greeted with cheers.
The other cheers were for an unlikely recipient, on the face of it, a chubby Chinese called Wang Lifu. He looked slightly comic, but when he opened his mouth out came the most beautiful baritone voice giving what were for my money perfectly judged performances of Schubert, Duparc, Rakhmaninov and Loewe - this last, in particular - Herr Oluf - was a tour de force. Doubtless there were imperfections in his performance that the judges will have noticed, but for me he was the only true lieder singer of the competition so far, and has to be in the final. He is only 24.
One thing that all three had in common - and more difficult to describe - was some mixture of honesty and sincerity. They were all polished, and comfortable at being on stage, but most of all they gave the impression that they loved the songs they were performing. One other singer, a Canadian soprano, seemed to be popular with the audience, but she was all presentation - big smile, lots of hair, glossy tan, carefully-judged gestures - and no heart.
The third heat of the Song Prize brought another 24 year-old baritone, this time Andrei Bondarenko from the Ukraine. What is more, he began with the same Rakhmaninov song that Wang Lifu, the Chinese baritone, had included in his programme - V molchan'ji nochi taynoy. His voice wasn't quite as lovely, but nevertheless very fine. More importantly - I say this because we are hearing a number of fine but expressionless voices - he was totally engaged with the words and meaning of his songs. His performance of Grieg's lovely Zur Rosenzeit went straight to the heart.
We also saw a very polished Australian mezzo called Helen Sherman, who had perfect control of her stage technique - no unnecessary arm-waving. She also, thank goodness, had her long hair gathered up into a bun - some of the other competitors have so much hair on display that you begin to think you're at the wrong event. In particular I liked her performance of three very different songs from Britten's Charm of Lullabies; all very well characterized and enunciated.
In the evening we had the first heat of the Singer of the World, in which we saw two singers we had already seen in the song prize heats.One of these, a Bulgarian soprano called Maria Radoeva, had made very little impression earlier. I liked her more here: her performance of Semiramide's Bel raggio lusinghier seemed quite accomplished, if characterless. But perhaps no characterisation is better than the wrong kind: she portrayed Musetta, in Quando m'en vo', as a rather coy little flirt, not a commanding presence at all.
Of the others, Anna Leese (a soprano from New Zealand) and Vazgen Ghazaryan (an Armenian bass) both had lovely voices - the latter's seemed particularly suited to the two Verdi arias he sang from Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth. They also had nice stage presence. But they seemed rather overwhelmed by the occasion, or perhaps by the orchestra, which occasionally drowned them out.
My only problem with the performance of the Russian mezzo Olesya Petrova in the song prize heat had been that she didn't sound much like a lieder singer. But without any doubt she is an opera singer. Her voice is fabulous and her involvement in her roles was total. She sang Adieu forets from Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans, Acerba volutta from Adriana Lecouvreur, and the kind of performance of Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix that one dreams of hearing. She set the hall alight, and was a very popular winner.
The final heat of the Song Prize produced another star in the form of the Irish mezzo Maire Flavin. She was poised and totally in command of her performance, for the most part standing very still. But if this makes her sound cold and formal I've given the wrong impression because she had a great gift for communicating a wide range of emotions. I sometimes wonder why singers feel compelled to include humourous songs, because often the result seems forced, but her performance of Rosenthal's La souris d'Angleterre was perfectly judged. She ended with an unaccompanied version of The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Philip Martin, a contemporary Irish composer I hadn't come across before. She sang this simply, giving full value to the words, and with great feeling. (Seated where I was, I could see that Simon Lepper was accompanying her closely in spirit, if not on the keyboard.)
She was clearly the audience's favourite but we also had a charming and sincere performance by Hye Jung Lee, a South Korean soprano, of a nicely varied programme which included two very well-delivered songs in English - Sweeter than Roses, and Old Sir Faulk.
The audience also liked the American soprano who finished the recital, Leah Crocetto, demonstrating once again that tastes can vary, as she did nothing for me.
However, the jury in its collective wisdom has placed Leah Crocetto in the final, together with Maire Flavin, the Swiss soprano Olga Kindler, the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko, and the Moldovan soprano Valentina Nafornita. The announcement of Valentina's name was received by the audience with audible surprise, which of course the jury will have been aware of as its members were standing on the stage looking down at us. My hunch is that the winner will be Maire Flavin or Andrei Bondarenko - but what do I know about it?
I'm upset that the Chinese and Russian singers weren't selected. As it happens, I heard Olesya's performance on the Radio 3 lunchtime broadcast just before setting out for the theatre, and was again struck by her powerful and very personal performance of the Tchaikovsky song. We'll be hearing Wang Lifu this evening in Round 2 of the main competition, performing Mozart, Mahler and Verdi. Go for it Wang! (or should I call him Lifu?)"