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The Cardiff Singer of the World
June 2005 St David's Hall Cardiff & BBC Television

The Cardiff Singer of the World competition will always be associated with the mighty "battle of the baritones" between Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel in 1989, and the 2005 contest once again ended in a thrilling and closely matched final watched by a capacity audience in St David's Hall, and many thousands of TV viewers. Nicole Cabell from America won by what we are told was the narrowest margin of marks*, with all the finalists giving performances worthy of the occasion.

Over 500 singers from countries around the world had been auditioned and whittled down to a short list of 25. Each of these singers presents a 20 minute programme at one of the five preliminary concerts, accompanied by full orchestra. A winner is declared for each evening, and at the end of the week the jury declare the names of five singers with the highest overall marks who will go on to compete in the final. This year, I believe for the first time, the finalists were quite simply the five preliminary winners - sopranos from Italy and America , a mezzo from New Zealand and tenors representing England and Chile .

New Zealander, Wendy Dawn Thompson, opened the final with a favourite mezzo showpiece, "Parto, parto" from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. She followed up with Berlioz's "La spectre de la Rose" and the Composer's aria from Ariadne auf Naxos , which she had also sung in the previous round. She has a wonderfully direct approach and immediately established a warm rapport with the audience. It was perhaps a slight anti-climax to finish with a repeated item, a really fiery rendition of "Parto, parto" would probably have left a stronger impression, but this is certainly a singer to watch out for.

Next on was Daria Masiero from Italy who began and ended with Puccini arias, and Mozart in between. The subtlety with which she characterised each piece was emphasised in TV close-up, her Countess in "Dove sono" was marked by maturity as well as regret, and contrasted well with an excited and insistent "Oh! mio babbino caro", and the sheer anguish of Liu's desperate "Principessa, l'amore!...Tu che di gel sei cinta". It is always a brave choice to concentrate on such well known pieces, which can so easily be compared with favourite recordings, and I would have liked her to have shown something in a language other than her native Italian - Dvorak's "Song to the Moon" which she chose in the preliminary round was quite simply lovely.

Andrew Kennedy, from Northumberland, followed. As he had already won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize, which is competed for separately in a parallel competition, this was one singer who knew that he was not going to leave Cardiff empty handed and who looked relaxed and confident from the moment he stepped onto the platform. His well chosen programme encompassed an extract from a Handel Cantata, arias from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Donizetti's Don Pasquale, rounded off with a Richard Strauss song, and amply demonstrated the full range of Andrew's vocal talents, whilst perhaps also gave us a glimpse of how dramatic his voice will be when it has fully matured.

Nicole Cabell, who is a third-year member of Chicago 's Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, had made an immediate and striking impression in Tuesday night's concert. On that occasion she quite simply stole the show with "Steal me, sweet thief" from Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief, and a near-perfect performance of a Bellini aria. Again, in a most elegant black dress, Nicole captivated the audience as she opened her programme with "How can I cherish my man in such days" from Tippett's A Child of Our Time, which she has recently sung with the Lyric Opera. As in the previous round, her middle item was a Mozart aria, perhaps a little surprisingly, as Mozart is a composer who stylistically does not seem to suit her. She rounded off her programme with a dazzling display of vocal virtuosity in the all to seldom heard "Les belles fleurs!...Entre l'amour et le devoir" form Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini .

Before the audience had fully got its breath back, the final singer, Luis Olivares Sandoval from Chile, was on the stage. Luis had qualified in the last concert of the series, and had been moved to tears of joy when called to the platform to receive his trophy. At the final his professional demeanour was restored and the experience he has gained in performing a number of major roles in Chile was readily apparent. His appearance whilst singing is perhaps a little restrained, but he has a totally secure vocal technique and, beautifully coloured throughout the range. "Una furtive lagrima" was followed by an aria from Gounod's Faust and topped by "Ella mi fu rapita - Parmi veder le lagrime" from Rigoletto . (In interview Luis confided that he found it a most difficult aria.) Tenors of that quality are hard to find, and whilst he did not win the contest, no doubt he will be much in demand by opera houses in every continent.

A report of the competition would not be complete without mention of some of the singers who were not included in the final, most notably the Korean Ha-Young Lee (now a member of the Royal Opera's Vilar Young Artists Programme in London) whose beautiful singing and impassioned performance of "Sempre libera" in La Traviata quite simply captured the hearts of the audience and made her a deserved runaway winner of the Audience Prize, voted for ballot in the hall and by 'phone, text and email from the worldwide audience. Praise for Ha-Young's singing must be tempered by a note of caution concerning her posture, with a marked tendency to lean forward whilst singing, which might have been punished severely by the jury?

I also enjoyed the performances of Liudmilla Dudinova of Russia , Tsvetena Bandalovska from Bulgaria, and of course the home contestant, Camilla Roberts from Wrexham, who ended her recital with obvious delight.

Serena Fenwick

* TV viewers were told that Nicole Cabell won "by one point", but not who was the runner-up, leaving us all (including the candidates) to speculate?

Competition organisers really do need to address the issue of insisting upon one winner (as in sport where a horse's nose-length is decisive, or in human athletics a hundredth of a second). No shame in having joint winners?

The selection for Cardiff is so tough and rigorous that getting into the finals this year ought to have earned each of the five laureates full recognition and a suitable prize, with a top-up for the designated winner. Non-finalists and non-winners often prove themselves in due course (there's always another competition!) and Ha-Young Lee's extra publicity arising from controversy will not have been unwelcome!

The two prizes, the jury's and the audience's, gave general satisfaction at Cardiff and went exactly as I'd voted too. Competition results so often leave us bemused - in one international competition in Rhodes, concern about a Spanish choir's bewildering failure to make the finals in any category led to an eventual audience protest, amounting to a near riot during the prizegiving ceremony! I arranged to have the scores (which were disclosed in detail) analysed by a statistician, who demonstrated that the deciding margins had been below any recognised standard for statistical significance. Wiser juries and organisers keep their figures secret!

You can access substantial video clips of each of the 24 singers. Click on their thumbnail images, then Watch & Listen via their countries. Once a clip has begun, you can click onto "full screen" viewing.
(I found that the picture and sound tended to be scrambled for a few seconds before clearing OK)