I almost didn't make it. Missing a bus on a Sunday, when they only come every half hour, is not a smart plan. I can now report that it is possible, although painful and not advisable, to make it from Park St to the Conservatorium on foot in approximately twelve minutes. My ankles hate me for it today, but the rest of me is happy, because it was a seriously enjoyable afternoon of singing.
Unlike other aria finals I've attended lately, aria selection for this competition runs more along the lines of an audition: contestants select their first aria, and the second is selected on the spot by the judging panel. Singing competitions are the closest I get to watching sport, so I'm all for an element of chance to enliven proceedings, and I amused myself by trying to guess what sort of arias might be chosen to contrast with the first selections.
Not surprisingly — in fact it may well be a condition of entry — each of the six finalists sang at least one aria in German, which made for a refreshingly unusual programme. Alongside Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, we had Lortzing, Weber, Nicolai and Gustave Charpentier. And imagine it, three baritones and not a single "Hai gia vinta la causa" in sight!
Sometimes in competitions you come to the end of the night with no idea which way the judges will go. This time, though, it was pretty clear. At least, it was to me. About ten seconds into Charlie Kedmenec's first aria (Wolfram's "Blick' ich umher" from Tannhäuser) I thought: well, he's won it. The rest of the aria confirmed my opinion. As did his second aria, a brilliant "Aprite un po' quegli occhi", sung with comic flair and not a hair nor a note out of place. Even with four more finalists to come, it seemed certain Charlie would take the prize, and so he did.
But not without competition. Had a runner up been named, it must surely have been the captivating Emily Uhlrich, opera's answer to Reese Witherspoon. She's a soubrette of the loveliest sort, rather in the mold of Barbara Bonney. Her "Einst träumte" from Der Freischütz was extraordinary — a long, relentlessly perky aria which could so easily have become irritating but which, in Emily's care, was totally delightful. All the more impressive was her seamless change of gears for the second selection, Louise's dreamy "Depuis le jour", complete with requisite tear-inducing piannissimi — proof that there's more to Emily than -inas and -ettas. Definite star quality here.
And then, in Gilligan's Island style, there were the rest. Which is not meant as dismissively as it sounds. All six finalists were at an impressively high standard. Soprano Kerry Nicholson gave us a gutsy "Regnava nel silenzio...Quando rapito in estasi", although perhaps slightly too gutsy, as she seemed, understandably, a bit frazzled in her second selection, Konstanze's "Ach, liebte". Maria Okunev was another soprano called upon to deliver a demanding pair of arias, following Frau Flucht's flighty "Nun eilt herbei...Verführer!" (from Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor) with an impassioned, if slightly histrionic, "Ah, fors'e lui...Sempre libera". Baritone Adam Player enjoyed himself with Papageno's suicide aria; I was less convinced by the panel's selection, "Heiterkeit und Fröhlichkeit" from Lortzing's Der Wildschütz, but that possibly has as much to do with the aria itself as anything else. In terms of simple sonic splendour, the winner was James Roser, whose rich, burnished baritone made for a most enjoyable "Ha! Welch' ein Augenblick" and a drop dead gorgeous "Blick' ich umher".
The prize was presented by Robert Allman AM OBE, flanked by vocal coach Victor Morris and the ever-stylish Joan Carden OBE AO. There were also speeches before and after by a pair of Germans: Immo Buschmann from Audi, who provided a bonus lesson in luxury vehicle marketing strategy, and the wonderfully witty Wolfgang Grimm, chairman of the award. Australian tenor Glenn Winslade hosted, coping valiantly with temperamental sound equipment and adlibbing nicely through a delay as the stage was set up for the awards presentation.
And as if all the above weren't enough, there was a cherry on top: a guest appearance by José Carbo. His "Vin, dissipe la tristesse" brought the house down, and his "Cortigiani" from Rigoletto — despite his prefacing it with the claim that he was "still ten years" from doing it justice — was stunning. We were even allowed an encore, a Tosti song (I don't know which one) which made me wish we could have spent another three hours just listening to José. If I hadn't already been his gushing fan, yesterday's performance would probably have made me so. This is one seriously fantastic singer: polished, engaging, preposterously charismatic. And that golden, glorious voice... it's enough to turn even this canary-fancier's head.