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Seen and Heard Competition Review

BBC Cardiff Singer Of The World: Main Prize Final Concert, St David's Hall, Cardiff 19th June 2005 (BK)


Nicole Cabell - Main Prize Winner 2005

So it's over now, bar the shouting: the wires between Cardiff and the universe have flashed the news that America's Nicole Cabell is 2005's Singer of the World and post-mortem discussion begins yet again. Does this competition really lead the world, as Jury Chairman Anthony Freud declared at the Main Prize presentation? Was this year's competition (as it always seems to be) the best one ever? Did the right singer win? Perhaps, could be, and possibly are the only reasonable answers.



Left to Right : Luis Olivares Sandoval (Chile) Wendy Dawn Thompson (New Zealand)

Daria Masiero (Italy) Nicole Cabell (USA )  Andrew Kennedy (England)


While no-one seriously doubts Cardiff's importance as a major career boost for its winners, the competition certainly has its critics. The age range for entrants is very wide at 18 to 36 and some feel that this gives an edge to more seasoned performers. This year however the youngest singers were all aged 25 and the oldest were 32. And as it happens, three of the Main Prize finalists were 28 this time, one was 30 and the oldest (Luis Olivares Sandoval) was 32. Small difference this year then, in either age or experience.


A second gripe about the event though may be more important, particularly when many involved with the arts are worried about 'dumbing down.' This concerns the different levels of prestige attaching to Cardiff's Main Prize and Song Prize competitions. Although the Song (formerly the Lieder) Prize and the Main Prize for singing with an orchestra have both been offered since the competition began in 1982, entry for the Song Prize remains voluntary.There still seems to be a bias towards the Main Prize as the real test of 'star quality,' of which one significant indicator is that the cash awarded for the Main Prize stands at £10,000 while the Song Prize winner receives £5,000. Though career development opportunities for each prize winner are more comparable these days - thanks in no small part to generous sponsorship for the Song Prize by the Rosenblatt Recital Series from 2003 onwards - this year was the first occasion in which the Song Prize was allowed a public final concert in its own right, complete with a broadcast on television. Unlike the Main Prize Final however, which is transmitted as it happens on BBC television, the Song Prize Final won't appear until July 16th.


The real importance of the Cardiff competition is surely not that it simply showcases the next generation of opera stars. At its best, the thing that Cardiff stands for, is the development of all - round excellence in singing. So while things are clearly improving as far as the status of the Song Prize goes, more might yet be done. My own inclination would be to change the regulations for the Song Prize (surely as great a test of textual and musical nous as anything in the operatic repertoire) still further. Either it should be made compulsory for all the entrants, or else it should be open to those not wishing to compete for the Main Prize. There is an opportunity here to promote singing as a whole, not simply to find the 'Opera Singer of the World.'


Ha-Young Lee - Audience Prize Winner 2005


But controversy can dog the Main Prize too, and this year it was the selection of the winner from Round 5 for the final that caused the biggest furore. To the dismay (even disgust in some cases) of the large numbers of people who commented on the BBC's competition website, the Chilean tenor Luis Olivares Sandoval was chosen over Korean soprano Ha-Young Lee. Ms Lee (who is currently a member of Royal Opera's Vilar Young Artists Programme) was rated by many members of the public as giving the most exciting performance of the whole week and particular rage was stirred up by the widely reported view that the Jury had found her La Traviata extracts 'over acted.' Less than complimentary things were said about the Jury's competence once again, and in the end Ms Lee was awarded the recently founded (and very popular) Audience Prize of £2500. Honour was satisfied to some degree.


In a sense though, this occurrence and the similar disagreement between Jury and public about Elina Garanca and Marius Brenciu in 2001, does raise another kind of question concerning the competition's purpose. And while sympathising entirely with the difficulties that any Jury faces, the perennial problem of the criteria used for comparison in the Main Prize competition, remains unresolved especially in the final. How do we compare honest chalk with good ripe Stilton exactly?


As always, the particular difficulties this year, were about choice of repertoire on the one hand, and about contrasting sheer vocal technique with (if you like) poetry on the other. Two finalists, Daria Masiero and Luis Sandoval, sang fairly standard excerpts from well-known operas only, while others showed off the range of their skills with a more mixed bag. Ms Masiero sang Liùs' aria 'Principessa, l'amore ... Tu che di gel sei cinta' form Turandot, 'Dove sono,' and 'O mio babbino caro' while Mr Sandoval gave us 'Una furtiva lagrima,' Gounod's 'Salut demeure' and 'Parmi veder le lagrime' from Rigoletto. Both were fine in their own ways and as it happens I was greatly impressed by Mr. Sandoval's tenor.


Against this however, Wendy Dawn Thompson chose Handel, Berlioz and Strauss (the Composer's aria from Ariadne auf Naxos repeated from her preliminary round) and Song Prize winner Andrew Kennedy offered even more Handel, Mozart ('O wie ängstlich' from Die Enführung), different Donizetti to Mr Sandoval and some different Strauss from Ms Thompson. Prize Winner Nicole Cabell in turn, produced Tippett ('How can I cherish my man' from A Child of our Time, 'Se il padre perdei' from Idomeneo and 'Entre l'amour et le devoir' from Benvenuto Cellini. And if these comparisons weren't sufficiently difficult in themselves, the Jury was then required to judge two sopranos one against the other,and two very different tenors.



Andrew Kennedy- Song Prize Winner 2005


In terms of 'Wow' factor of course, at least to the audience's ear, Nicole Cabell won the prize hands down. Hers is an extraordinary voice right enough, immensely powerful at full tilt, seriously acrobatic when need be and with an amazingly well controlled dynamic range (especially in the Tippett.) Terrific to listen to for a while, without any doubt, but not as expressive of her music as Andrew Kennedy had been in his preliminary round or (to a lesser extent) in the final. Then again though, in terms of sheer bravura singing, Mr Kennedy was no match for Luis Sandoval's more limited repertoire.


It is not, I hasten to add, that I grudge Ms Cabell her success in the slightest - she has a truly wonderful voice and I'm very glad to have heard it. No, it's more that I think that Cardiff needs to take a little care not to become the Oscars of singing, and reward sheer crowd-pulling power. The Jury resisted that with Ms Lee this time, but in the case of Ms Cabell, they could hardly have helped being influenced (at least to some degree) by her audience's excited response. If Cardiff is to retain its hard earned supremacy (and it may well be the greatest competition in the world) then it could toughen up its regulations slightly, and might usefully publish its judging criteria for all to see. Doing both would de-mystify the art of singing and consolidate Cardiff's dominance at the same time.





Bill Kenny


Orchestra: BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Conductors: Grant Llewellyn, Carlo Rizzi, Ralf Weikert


Judges: Dame Anne Evans, Menno Feenstra, Marilyn Horne, René Kollo, Sergei Leferkus, Brian McMaster and Anthony Freud (Chairman)



Pictures © Brian Tarr 2005



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