I love competitive singing. All the musical pleasures of a normal concert, with just a hint of bloodsport to make life a bit more interesting. So I always enjoy vocal competitions. But my excursion to North Sydney for the semi finals of the Mathy Awards last Thursday night was a particular pleasure. As a concert and as a competition, everything about this event was right — a gorgeous and appropriate venue, an informed, appreciative audience (who didn't cough), an entertaining compere and, most importantly, a series of polished performances by singers with musical intelligence and excellent voices.
Soprano Sarah Jones opened the evening with "Johnny" from Britten's Cabaret Songs, by turns knowing, arch and touching as she moved through the song's ever-changing moods and (parodied) musical styles. It was perhaps more an acting showcase than a vocal one, but no less appealing for that. In the second half, her "No word from Tom...I go to him" (from Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress) saw a little less at ease, but was nevertheless engagingly sung. Both pieces suffered initialy from slightly fuzzy diction, but in both cases this cleared up as the songs progressed. Sarah didn't make the finals but was quite rightly awarded the competition's Encouragement Award.
She was followed by Emily Blanch, who was for me the stand-out of the evening. Her stage presence was not the strongest of the evening, nor were her interpretations the most detailed; but Emily has been blessed with something none of her fellow semi-finalists yet possesses — a unique, distinctive and breathtakingly beautiful voice. In terms of sheer beauty of sound, she was the clear winner. Hers is the kind of voice critics like to call "creamy" or "golden" but which possesses far more colours than either word suggests; a large voice but not so large it's beyond her control; aural luxury. Nor is sonic gorgeousness all she possesses; she is an appealing performer, obviously committed to text as well as music. The details can (and I'm sure will) come later, and when they do, Emily Blanch will be somebody very special indeed. In fact I think she already is — I became her totally biased fan when she reduced me to tears in the first two seconds of her first (wholly appropriate) selection, "Io son l'umile ancella". Again, in Strauss' "An die Nacht" she was exquisite and I was in ecstasy.
Helen Sherman was the evening's first mezzo and had my attention right from the start with a very interesting repertoire choice — a song by Schreker, "Stimmen des Tages" which she delivered with plenty of Romantic lyricism. Her second, slightly more conventional selection was perhaps even more impressive, the "Laudamus te" from Mozart Mass in C minor, which she totally aced — all the more so because she was the second singer of the evening to perform it. Soprano Lauren Oldham had performed it earlier in the evening, but had rather less success with both the aria's technical demands and its sense of pious ecstasy. Lauren did better in her own second selection, "Le spectre de la rose" from Les nuits d'été, having more luck with those long, arching French lines than the coloratura flourishes of the Mozart, but ultimately I think lacked the stamina to carry the song (and it is a long one) cohesively to its conclusion. Both pieces were perhaps slightly too ambitious.
Happily for me, this was a very soprano/mezzo heavy evening, with only two men among the ten semi finalists, both of them baritones. Of these, the first was Laurence Meikle, with two vastly different pieces. First, Schubert — "Der Doppelgänger" from Schwanengesang; and then, of all things, Rossini — Dandini's aria "Come un'ape ne' giorni d'aprile" from La Cenerentola. Both were basically successful though the Schubert was probably the more fully realised and accomplished of the two. His fellow baritone was Michael Lampard — a finalist in the same competition last year — with more Schubert, "Wer sich der Einsamkeit", and Figaro's "Aprite un po'quegl'ochhi". Michael has several important things going for him: real musicality, for one, and a rich, glowing voice which belies his age (at 21, he was the youngest in the competition). But though his performances sound beautiful, and they're intelligently executed, for now he still lacks that certain spark which engages an audience, and which is definitely needed for an operatic (or Lieder) career.
Another of evening's revelations was the wonderful soprano Natalie Aroyan. Though a bit of breathiness in her first selection suggested she might have been suffering from the currently omnipresent flu, she nevertheless gave an enchanting performance, of Rachmaninov's "Ne poy Krasavitsa". Like many of the others, the nerves allayed somewhat, she shone even brighter in the second half. Natalie's second selection was an exquisitely shaped and compelling "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Hérodiade. Along with Emily's two selections, it provided one of the evening's loveliest and most thrilling moments. Natalie was followed in both halves of the programme by mezzo soprano Margaret Plummer. Again, Margaret's second selection was her best. Brahms' "Von ewiger Liebe" was sweetly sung but somehow never quite there; but her "Werther, Werther" on the other hand was excellent, lyrical and genuinely moving.
Soprano Mary-Jean O'Doherty came representing the stratosphere, beginning with a fiendish Mozart concert aria, "Ah, che non sei capace" — Natalie Dessay territory, this. I had to admire her courage and poise in taking this piece on, and there were some very impressive passages, though all in all I suspect it's not quite within her grasp yet. Nerves played their part too, though — she seemed altogether happier in Milhaud's "A Cupidon", which is in its own way just as acrobatic. Here her high high notes were rather more secure, and the piece as a whole had more shape to it. And finally, at the end of the evening — she's to be congratulated for her patience — was a mezzo soprano, Victoria Wallace. Both she and Mary-Jean before her were familiar from their participation in the early stages of Operatunity Oz (which makes me wonder about how stringent the selection criteria for that show — which is supposed to discover untutored amateurs — really are. But never mind.) Victoria gave us a sensitive, though slightly harsh-edged rendition of Gurney's "Sleep" and an impassioned "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix", which has certainly improved since she sang for Richard Gill et al in Operatunity.
Of the five finalists selected, I successfully picked three — Emily Blanch, Natalie Aroyan and Helen Sherman, the three obvious choices. I confess I was somewhat surprised by the other two, Mary-Jean O'Doherty and Victoria Wallace. But this competition, like the Lexus Song Quest, judges singers not just by their semi-finals performance on its own, but also by interview and private adjudication — they're selected on a combination of factors, not just one night's vocal ability, but personality, study plans, potential. Thus, I gladly bow to the far better qualified judgement of adjudicator Anson Austin (my compatriot after all) and trust that his selections were the right ones. We'll have to wait until the finals in November to see just how right — on the basis of last Thursday's performances, I'd say it's set to be a brilliant event.