On Friday night, Natalya Romaniw won first prize in what is generally reckoned the most prestigious singing contest in the UK, the annual Kathleen Ferrier Awards.
The awards test all sorts of singing. Opera, art song, oratorio/concert and Bach/Handel are all compulsory elements. So although the contest is held at the Wigmore Hall, it's not necessarily the best lieder singer who wins.
Natalya is a good all-rounder, but opera is clearly her greatest strength. She's still only 25, but already her big steely soprano sounds remarkably mature, a cutting Slavic edge betraying her Ukrainian heritage (despite the name, she's actually Welsh).
And she has the personality and confidence to put across the words. As well as the top award, Natalya won the song prize for Britten's Tell me the Truth about Love, a high risk choice that can be positively toe-curling if not done absolutely right. Fortunately for Natalya she pulled it off with wit and a genuine and easily-found bond with the audience, a sort of operatic X-Factor. Not every singer manages to make an impression, but Natalya did, just as on every other occasion I've seen her perform. A clear and worthy winner who should go far.
Joint second were Ruth Jenkins and Ben McAteer. Had the contest been purely about putting the words across, Ben might have won. He has a gorgeously rich baritone and a real talent for lieder. Ruth is an extraordinarily agile high soprano who delivered a sensational Der Hölle Rache in the semifinals but unfortunately let her nerves get the better of her in the final. With hindsight, the sustained notes of Schubert's Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen were not the best choice of programme opener for a voice wobbling with (understandable) anxiety. Controlling the physical effects of nervousness is an important part of a singer's skills, from the bottom of the profession to the top (even Renee Fleming still admits to nerves), and I wouldn't be surprised if Ruth lost a few marks as a result.
The finest voice in the finals belonged to a contestant who wasn't placed. Eleanor Dennis is a lyric soprano with a beautiful and individual smoky-toned instrument. But whether through nerves or otherwise her stage presence and delivery were inert and her lower register not always properly integrated. She's not quite the finished article at this stage, but clearly has a lot of potential.
There were just two more contestants in the finals. Russell Harcourt sang very clearly and tastefully, but naturally suffers from the restricted colour palette and repertoire which limit any countertenor's progress in this sort of competition. Robyn Allegra Parton is a very competent and confident lyric soprano who did nothing really wrong, but somehow didn't manage to imprint her character - perhaps a more daring programme might have served her skills better.
Here's Natalya Romaniw singing Come scoglio at Houston Grand Opera's awards. She heads to Texas next season in the footsteps of Joyce DiDonato, Eric Owens and Denyce Graves to join Houston's young singers studio.