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Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach wins BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2019

Francis Muzzu

Blog: BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2019

11:25, 21st June 2019

Opera Now’s correspondent Francis Muzzu reports from the Welsh capital as the finals of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition take place

 

1. Song Prize Final, Thursday 20th June

As Cardiff basked in sunshine and many thousands of beglittered fans flocked into the city centre to worship rock star Pink, another group of stalwarts, generally calmer, made their way to St David’s Hall for the Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize Final.

A ghastly moment interrupted the start of the competition when a member of the audience collapsed as the first contestant launched his opening song. Chinese tenor Mingjie Lei left the stage visibly distressed for the poor man and the auditorium was evacuated. Thanks to quick-acting medics in the audience, efficient staff and a wonderfully prompt ambulance crew, the patient was rushed to hospital for further treatment. Hats off to them all.

 

Chinese tenor Mingjie Lei wins the Song Prize (Photo credit: Kirsten Mcternan)

So after a break of almost an hour, Lei returned to the stage to recommence his performance, moved by the warm ovation he received. He proceeded to demonstrate his immaculate vocalism, with elegant legato and a wide range of colours, plus a skilful voix mixte and a sense of physical expression. He was obviously going to be a hard act to follow as soprano Sooyeon Lee discovered, for despite her exquisite floated tones she never seemed to dig into the text in any way.

Baritone Andrei Kymach perked things up, galvanising the crowd with some thunderous noises and an intense stage manner: perhaps just a little too operatic (so watch out for him in the Main Final on Saturday!). Welsh mezzo Angharad Lyddon restored some calm with probably the most detailed performance of the evening, finely attuned to her texts, followed by another extroverted showing from Russian tenor Roman Arndt who certainly won the crowd over.

After a surprisingly short deliberation the jury returned with its verdict, and Mingjie Lei took his third walk onto the stage, this time to a roar of applause as he received the victor’s trophy from Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. He looked thrilled, moved, still shaken and almost bewildered by the fabulous wall of sound that is the Welsh proudly singing their national anthem.

 

2. Masterclasses by Frederica von Stade, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Dame Felicity Lott, Friday 21st June

Frederica von Stade exclaimed at the start of her masterclass, ‘I’m not a master…call it a Flickaclass!’ alluding to her nickname of old. A good point, as what can a young singer expect from the experience? Some benefit and thrive from it, some wilt, others are demoralised. Three completely different yet fabulous approaches at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama demonstrated just what riches can be mined by an astute and experienced teacher. Perhaps not unpredictably, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa spent most time on vocal production and placement; von Stade focused on releasing the inner performer; and Dame Felicity Lott demonstrated the importance of relishing and singing off the text.

Dame Felicity Lott (Photo credit: Christina Raphaelle)

The students were engaged and responsive, Te Kanawa and von Stade’s drawn mainly from Cardiff Singer competitors, though some of Lott’s lambkins, students from the Junior Conservatoire, did look as though instant slaughter might be preferable. Luckily their mentor was infinitely calming and encouraging, and more than happy to highlight her own mistakes and struggles. She even managed with some kindness to get a shy youth to laugh at his own lack of preparation, pointing at the text and asking, ‘do you know what that means?’ Long silence… ‘Um, no.’ ‘Well you will next time!’ Te Kanawa noted the accomplishment of her three students to the audience with a touch of asperity: ‘These singers need little help from me…but I was picked on for fifty years.’ Criticism comes with the job.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (Photo credit: Warren Orchard)

So what tips would these young singers pass on from their experience, I wonder. Be polite; listen and learn; thank your accompanist. All obvious, one would hope. But perhaps less so: don’t be cocky or try to score points – it’s rude; do what you are told, or at least try it (it’s why you’re there); and rather less obvious perhaps, but when you’re choosing your outfit remember that there are myriad tones of black and they don’t all match under stage lights. Three women wore jumpsuits – sensible, smart, comfortable. And we all look at your shoes, so clean’em.

And if von Stade is teaching you, be prepared to dance with her, be chased around the auditorium by her, forced to sing directly to a stranger in the audience by her, and argue about the pronunciation of ‘enchantment’ with her – at which point she was cheerfully shouted down by the audience which wasn’t having any of these newfangled American ways. In the case of stentorian mezzo Yulia Mennnibaeva, von Stade’s approach worked wonders, as the experience of singing an unrehearsed lullaby while caressing von Stade’s hair, then changing gears into a comic Russian song, suddenly released the hitherto formal personality and with it a myriad of vocal colours and subtleties: a very moving moment. Above all, get a pedicure, as those (clean) shoes might be coming off without warning in an attempt to make you let go and relax. As Te Kanawa exclaimed to one of her students who had the courage to sing the Contessa, one of the diva’s great roles, ‘fasten your seatbelt!’

 

3. Main Prize Final, Saturday 22nd June

So, what to sing for your final assault on the main prize in Cardiff? An aria from a role that you already have under your belt? A familiar audience favourite? Pieces that show off your language skills? Or perhaps something obscure, enjoying its rare moment in the spotlight?

2019’s finalists took a scattered approach to the problem. But they all shared a common ability: the art of commanding the stage and keeping the audience’s attention. The sense of concentration in the room was palpable. But once on the platform, performance choices veered from the sensible to the optimistic, proving that variety really is the spice of life.

Main Prize finalists 2019: L-R: Andrei Kymach, Guadalupe Barrientos, Patrick Guetti, Sooyeon Lee, Mingjie Lei (Photo credit: Kirsten Mcternan)

Baritone Andrei Kymach really came to life in his aria from Aleko, demonstrating that singing in your native language really is a good idea. His Escamillo wasn’t a model of French style, though his Donizetti offered excitement. Soprano Sooyeon Lee really does show off the most exquisite voice, with coloratura thrills aplenty. But why sing ‘Caro nome’ if you don’t possess a trill? And delicious though it all sounds, she might as well be singing the railway timetable for all the dramatic impetus she offers. Tenor Mingjie Lei has the best of both worlds: a soft-grained lyric tenor and a sense of purpose. He pulled off a difficult choice, a delicious rarity from Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba, delivered with elegance.

Then two more powerhouse performers to give Kymach a run for his money. Wildcard mezzo, Guadalupe Barrientos, who opened with a stunning slab of verismo from Cilea’s L’arlesiana that showed off her generous and vibrant instrument. She undid that good work with a sludgy aria from Samson et Dalila and a perhaps misguided song from Elgar’s Sea Pictures, once again a bit of a plod until she unleashed the voice at the end. Finally, American Patrick Guetti, who sensibly chose Wagner, Verdi and Mozart to suit his cavernous bass and excellent diction, rounding off with Copland’s ditty ‘I bought me a cat’ to demonstrate his comic charms.

My choice? (I thought you’d never ask.) Probably Guetti for his all-round skills and polish, though I’d be more than happy to encounter any of them in an opera house. But hey, what do I know…an ecstatic Kymach carried off the trophy. An equally ecstatic taxi driver almost swerved off the road when I told him later – he’d been driving the Ukrainian baritone around during the week. So Andrei Kymach, if you’re reading this, your biggest fan and taxi driver Mujibur sends his warmest congratulations. As do we all! 

 

This blog will be published as a full report in the August issue of Opera Now.

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