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Cardiff Singer of the World 2015 winners announced

22 June 2015, Cardiff, UK

Nadine Koutcher from Belarus took this year's first prize at Cardiff
Nadine Koutcher from Belarus took this year's first prize at Cardiff(Credit: Brian Tarr)

Report by Simon Rees

Nadine Koutcher, a 32-year-old soprano from Minsk in Belarus, walked off the stage of Cardiff’s St David’s Hall on 21 June as this year’s ultimate victor in the 2015 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.

This year, 20 singers competed for a number of titles, including the Song Prize (ably won by South Korean bass Jongmin Park) and the Audience Prize (carried off by Mongolian baritone Amartushvin Enkhbat).

The week began with the first two song rounds, held in the beautifully resonant Dora Stoutzker Hall. With only 450 seats, the venue wasn’t large enough to hold everyone who wanted to attend, so some in the audience had to make do with a relay to Cardiff University’s music department. The two official accompanists, Llŷr Williams and Simon Lepper, were joined by several other pianists brought along by individual singers. (One unexpected highpoint of the whole competition was Williams' transcendently dramatic performance of Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’, which left the soloist somewhat outclassed).

Other fine moments in the preliminary song rounds were Nadine Koutcher performing Liszt’s ‘Oh! Quand je dors’, a piece requiring exceptional virtuosity; and Jongmin Park singing ‘Danny Boy’, a daring choice brought off by his legato tone, marvellously wide dynamic range, and attention to the beauty of the words.

The main competition consisted of four preliminary rounds, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thomas Søndergård alternating with the orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Martyn Brabbins. These rounds had been ‘seeded’ by the competition’s artistic director David Jackson so that each round (unlike previous years) would produce a finalist, with a fifth singer to be chosen as a ‘wild card’. Previously it had been possible for one round to produce three finalists or more.

The worthy winner of the first round was Ukrainian tenor Oleksiy Palchykov whose renditions of ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ and ‘Il mio tesoro’ broke the usual pattern of white-knuckle rides during high, exposed Mozart arias. His tender, sweet-toned performance of Lensky’s aria ‘Kuda, kuda’ from Eugene Onegin had even the most hardened and jaded music industry pundits in tears. Palchykov had a good stage presence as an innocent country lad (fitting for someone who’s biography states that they have collected 61 football scarves) and worked the audience well, driving off prodigious opposition from South Korea's Jongmin Park (who made it back to the final on the wild card) and Germany singer Sebastian Pilgrim’s massive, thundering bass.

The second night belonged wholeheartedly to American soprano Lauren Michelle, a diva in the making with superb stage presence (she made her own dresses in the haute couture mode) and an enthusiastic family group who nearly knocked me flying with their standing ovation. Her main bid for fame was the scena, aria and cabaletta from Act I of La traviata, where I didn’t feel she brought much personality to Violetta. However, she executed all the runs and trills with scientific skill.

Round 3 went to Enkhbat from Mongolia, whose beauty of tone made up for his absolute lack of facial expression. His aria from Prince Igor showed off his excellent Russian, and his style in Giordano and Verdi was admirably Italianate, with acceptable pronunciation.

The final round was a walkover by Nadine Koutcher from Belarus, whose comic performance of ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ from The Tales of Hoffmann was the highlight of the rounds, including a wind-up from Martyn Brabbins every time her clockwork mechanism ran down.

At the finals themselves, Enkhbat’s glorious ‘Eri tu’ from Un ballo in maschera rivalled that of Hvorostovsky 25 years ago. Michelle’s ‘Il est doux, il est bon’ from Hérodiade was expressively phrased, while Electra’s aria from Idomeneo was less so. Palchykov returned (rather tired) from Paris where he had been singing Ferrando in Così fan tutte to give a rousing performance of ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ which should keep him in business in the German and Austrian houses. Park sang (to my mind, most beautifully and dramatically of all) from Verdi’s Requiem, The Barber of Seville and La Gioconda.

Nadine Koutcher win was acclaimed with a standing ovation from the audience. Deservedly so, for her ‘Bell Song’ from Lakmé was mesmerisingly sung across three octaves, with perfect intonation and musicianship.

This splendid final was the culmination of an altogether  great week for world-class singing in the Welsh capital. Yet again, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World proved to be one of the finest series of concerts around – never mind that it’s supposed to be a competition.

Vancouver Opera to transform into a festival from 2017

19 June 2015, Vancouver, Canada

James Wright: ‘We are being as forward thinking as possible’
James Wright: ‘We are being as forward thinking as possible’(Photo: Vancouver Opera)

Vancouver Opera has announced that it will no longer present a full season, but is reinventing itself as an annual spring festival from 2017.

Vancouver Opera (VO) was founded in 1958 and has grown to become Canada’s second biggest opera company. The new format will concentrate three of its four productions over three weeks in late April and early May.

VO general director Jim Wright says that the move has been prompted by concerns over sustainability in the face of diminishing audiences. He said ‘the old model simply wasn’t working and was not getting the numbers we needed’. He added: ‘We are being as forward thinking as possible’.

The new format is expected to deliver substantial savings on marketing, which will be concentrated at one time of year. Job losses are also expected. Overall, the savings should amount to around 10 per cent of operating costs.

Wright says the new Vancouver Opera Festival will showcase innovation, with animated lobby and plaza spaces, pre- and post-performance events, programming for young people and families, workshops and forums, cultural concerts and free events: ‘If we keep up the quality and it's interesting enough … there's no reason why it can't become a destination festival.’

Wright himself will not be staying on to lead the new festival, but is retiring at the end of the 2015-16 season after 17 years at the helm of the company.

Jonathan Kent receives CBE in Queen’s Birthday Honours

15 June 2015, London, UK

Jonathan Kent on set
Jonathan Kent on setLucie Goodayle © Guardian News & Media Ltd 2010

Report by Katy Wright

Opera and musical director Jonathan Kent has received a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for 2015 for services to music and theatre.

Kent made his debut as an opera director with the Santa Fe Opera’s 2003 production of Janáček’s Katya Kabanova. His first British production was a dramatisation of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time for English National Opera, and he made his Royal Opera House debut in 2006 with Puccini’s Tosca. His other credits include Hippolyte et Aricie, Don Giovanni, The Fairy Queen and The Turn of the Screw (Glyndebourne Festival); The Flying Dutchman (English National Opera); Katya Kabanova, Adès’s The Tempest and Le nozze di Figaro (Santa Fe); and Die Frau ohne Schatten and Elektra (Mariinsky Theatre).

Kent describes himself as ‘a theatre director who does opera’. His most recent production of Manon Lescaut for the Royal Opera House (2014) was dismissed as ‘obstructive and pretentious’ by Telegraph critic Rupert Christiansen, while Andrew Clements of the Guardian questioned the purpose of updating it to the modern day.

Other musicians to be recognised include composers James MacMillan and Karl Jenkins, who both received knighthoods; Sir Neville Marriner, who was made a Companion of Honour; choral conductor Simon Halsey, who also received a CBE; clarinettist and conductor Michael Collins, who became MBE.

Jonathan Kent

Wagner’s great-granddaughter banned from Bayreuth

11 June 2015, Bayreuth, Germany

Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner in 2008
Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner in 2008

Eva Wagner-Pasquier, great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner, has been removed from the board of Bayreuth Festival and banned from its premises.

Peter Raue, a lawyer representing Wagner-Pasquier, said that he had received a letter from the Festival board stating that his client was ‘no longer responsible’ for decisions concerning the Festival’s future, and banning her from attending rehearsals.

The development has received widespread criticism. Daniel Barenboim described Wagner-Pasquier’s treatment as ‘degrading and inhuman’, while her cousin, Nike Wagner, said: ‘We are considering legal action.’

Wagner founded the Bayreuth Music Festival in 1876, and it has since passed between various members of the Wagner family. In 2008, the Festival board ruled that Wagner-Pasquier (70) should run the event jointly with half-sister Katharina Wagner (37).

Opera Now correspondent Tom Sutcliffe said: 'The removal of Eva Wagner-Pasquier seems to me completely extraordinary, but entirely within the sad tradition of the Wagner family and the Bayreuth Festival. Both she and her half-sister Katharina Wagner had a privileged introduction to opera through their father Wolfgang. Katharina wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wolfgang and Wieland (the more artistically talented of the composer's two grandsons) by directing opera – and got many chances when very young to show what she could do in smaller opera houses such as Bremen and the Munich Gaertnerplatztheater before featuring work on the hallowed Bayreuth stage after Wolfgang's death. Eva built her career in the business of casting at Covent Garden and elsewhere away from Bayreuth, but Katharina has not had much success as a director. Eva now suffers from serious medical problems with her eyes and was due to step down this summer, so her forced exit is both unpleasant and unnecessary.'

Sutcliffe added: 'There's really no reason why the Wagner family should continue to be involved in the running of the Festival at all, and the state of Bavaria which pays the piper and can call the tune needs to face up to this reality.'

This year’s Bayreuth Festival runs from 25 July to 28 August and features seven productions, including Wagner’s complete Ring cycle in Frank Castorf’s controversial production from 2013 and a new staging of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner.


The Queens of Spades at English National Opera

8 June 2015, London, UK

Review by Robert Thicknesse

After the company’s recent excitements, Edward Gardner’s last show as music director of English National Opera reaffirms that it is really he who has dragged the company back to the forefront of European opera.

Gardner has wrested many iffy shows into compelling musical shape, and turned so many good ones into something stunning. This last was somewhere in the middle: a highly enjoyable and sometimes excellent David Alden production that occasionally lost focus and seriousness became in Gardner’s hands a runaway train of brilliant, inexorable musical momentum and screw-tightening tension.

The staging got a mixed reaction. Though one tends to disparage the cry-babies who want silly literalism and pretty dresses, Alden did rather go to town with his raid on the old tropes’ home of Regietheater. Nevertheless, for all the time-travel, expressionist lighting, interior film-shows, furry animal phantasmagoria, slo-mo tranny nannies and the rest, the show remained vividly alive: basically, it worked.

The Queen of Spades is a psychodrama with rubbishy aspects – Pushkin’s original, although heavily reworked, is itself a semi-jest – and it was good to see it in a frame to highlight many of its surprising, modern qualities.

The effect centred around really strong performances, and much credit to Alden for his direction of the singers: there was a hypnotic focus to all. Peter Hoare, stepping in quite late in the day for Peter Bronder, used all his character-tenor technique to make a compelling, slow-burn Hermann, and was quite equal to the culminating hysteria of the music. Giselle Allen is all heart, and this unstable Lisa was a fearless, fervid, raw performance, while remaining properly lyrical. Gregory Dahl and Nicholas Pallesen heightened the creepy atmosphere with a subtly skewed Tomsky and Yeletsky; Katie Bird’s cameo Masha was really well sung; and Catherine Young almost stole the show as a regulation traumatised, serially drunk and abused Pauline – bringing some point and much diversion to a cipherish character. Best of all was Felicity Palmer’s eerie countess, her bedroom scene touching and haunting in the horror of age as her Parisian youth possessed her mind in music coming from very far away.

The glossiest laurels, though, must go to the incomparable Gardner, a chorus on amazing form and an orchestra more intensely beautiful, tonally subtle, utterly shaped and concentrated than I’ve heard in this opera since some of the great old recordings. Nice one, Ed. ENO – and we – will miss you very much.


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