As London lurches from one horror to another, the only place to be last night was Cardiff, or at least in front of a TV beaming it in loud and clear. The 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World final proved one of those historic-to-be occasions that do occur there sometimes: five burgeoning singers take the stage and you soon realise you don't want to miss one note of any of them.
The victor seems to have taken some viewers by surprise, but I can't imagine why, other than the fact that she was the only performer who had not actually "won" her "round". Having grouped the contestants into a series of concerts, each of which has a winner who goes through to the final, the competition also offers a "wild card" final-round place for an extra choice. This was given to her. Her name is Catriona Morison and she comes from Scotland. (Is that why people are surprised? No one is a prophet in, etc.) Before the grand final, she had already won the Song Prize together with the Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar. We are very much in favour of joint awards when occasion demands - after all, the "there CAN only be ONE winner" trope beloved of TV talent contests serves TV way more than it serves the contestants.
In a grand final of astounding singing from most of the competitors, everyone displayed splendid, rock-solid technique. Most had planned their programmes well. The voices glowed and blazed and dazzled. Louise Alder, the English soprano, scooped the audience prize, as well she might: she's got it all, from top notes to absolute charisma. The men, even if ultimately outdone, were stunners too. The Australian tenor Kang Wang had a big following, was out to please and is clearly going places, though I thought he had a slight tendency (nerves perhaps?) to rush in the Lensky aria. But Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, who has already won the International Tchaikovsky Competition's singers' section, offered an account of Yeletsky's aria from The Queen of Spades, with sapphire-dark shining tone, that came so much from the heart that any Lisa in her right mind would have to drop the plot and fall straight into his arms. Anthony Clark Evans's Evening Star aria from Tannhäuser was scarcely less satisfying, and both baritones gave us the Prologue from Pagliacci, each so superb that I for one would never have been able to choose between them. Stardom awaits the lot.
What did Catriona do that was different from the others? Well, she sang Dido's Lament by Purcell.
She also sang Octavian from the first scene of Rosenkavalier, and a few other things, but frankly those pale, given what she did with the Purcell. The Lament is close to the hearts of very many music-lovers in the UK, of course, but partly because of that, it's the sort of piece we can sometimes take too much for granted. Catriona not only wrung us out with her emotional veracity, but made us feel we were recognising this music's extraordinary power and beauty for the first time. Thanks to her, it seemed that Purcell could outshine Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Puccini, never mind the bel canto stuff, plus Louise's beautiful extract from André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. As Danielle de Niese commented, when the technical level is so high all round, the judges have to look beyond that...
Where has she been all our lives? Actually, at Wuppertal Opera. A lot of surprise emerged on Twitter when the hosts for the evening mentioned in conversation that Germany has 83 publicly funded opera houses and 1/3 of the world's opera takes place there, but yes, they do, and they get things right: their audiences are accustomed to attending, they do rare repertoire, they present challenging productions and their ensemble companies help to train up fabulous youngsters from all over the world. Most of the best opera singers of today have done stints as company members in Germany. Some of them don't come home, which is why a British soprano, Catherine Foster, has been singing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth to great acclaim, yet nobody here has heard her...
End of rant. Please go and listen to all five singers on the iPlayer now, and let their artistry speak for itself.
I hope you enjoy reading JDCMB. The site has no paywall and does not charge a subscription, but I would greatly appreciate your support at GoFundMe. https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb