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A Class Act takes the Handel Singing Competition: Sue Loder reports from the final. 3.4.2008 (SL)

A packed St. Georges, Hanover Square, London greeted the five Finalists for the seventh annual Handel Singing Competition and there was a real buzz in the air as the audience settled down to enjoy the mixed emotions of performance and competition combined.  This audience, as always, was a mix of Handelian scholars, musicians, general music lovers and baroque enthusiasts – with quite a few supportive families come to cheer on the two sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, a tenor and a bass-baritone.  It was a pleasure to see Handelian “legend in his lifetime” Dennis Darlow looking spry just a few rows ahead.

With the passing years Mr. Darlow must have seen great changes – mainly for the better – in the way Handel’s music is approached and performed by the younger generation of singers.  Nearly all the great music conservatories of the world now include baroque studies and performance practice as an established part of the curriculum and of course the major opera houses have also woken up to the opportunities which Handel’s opera serie offer. No longer are they a neglected byway.  Today’s baroque stars are as charismatic, exciting and popular as their mainstream colleagues – perhaps more so.

This change in the way baroque music is perceived at the educational level of music is resulting in ever-improving standards and ever-stiffer competition, and nowhere is this more obvious than in this well-established London contest which has grown from modest, rather parochial, beginnings to one that now attracts some of the world’s most exciting young artists.

Just as well then that the organisers had gathered a formidable Jury to adjudicate: Gillian Fisher, Michael Chance, Catherine Denley, John Mark Ainsley and Chairman Ian Partridge, who had sat for many days sifting through the best applicants, whittling them down to this final five on the night. They must have had some interesting discussions in sorting out the minor placings, but it was no surprise when the winner of the Adair First Prize (£2000 and a performance at next year’s Festival) was announced as soprano Erica Eloff.

From the moment that Eloff, a native of South Africa, sang the first notes of “Let the Bright Seraphim” it was obvious that here was a serious voice, and a serious talent.  Her voice filled the space with such ease, full tone, and pin-point technical accuracy that one felt immediately that the HSF had revealed a talent that would be hard to match in the succeeding 2 hours.  And so it transpired.  Despite a slight lack of brilliance overall in the piece (and this is nit-picking) which perhaps was as much to do with the oboes doing duty for trumpets as anything else, it was an exciting start.   Better was to follow. The flowing elegiac lines of Ritorna, oh caro e dolce mio Tesoro from “Rodelinda” were beautifully placed and spun, with breath control to spare.  Eloff also subtly changed demeanour too….wrapping her chiffon shawl more tightly around her as she became the despairing Queen of Lombardy.  She ended with the evergreen competition item that does, nevertheless, show up any coloratura weakness or lack of dramatic attack – Tornami a vagheggiar from Alcina, a real barnstormer when sung with the kind of brilliance and confidence that Eloff displayed.  An amazingly full-toned top F in the final repeat took many people by surprise – it was a diamond in the crown of a memorable performance and a wise choice of programme.

Second prize went to a younger and much less experienced soprano: Rhona McKail from Ayrshire in Scotland, who showed lovely style and poise and if her technique and power were overshadowed by the South African, there was much potential there to develop. Her appealing story telling of “Can I see my infant gor’d” from Solomon gave notice of good things to come.  Alone among the contestants she chose to introduce each piece with a few spoken lines anticipating the drama or explaining the aria’s context – perhaps not entirely a good idea given her audience last night.

Of the remaining three contestants, the virile well produced bass-baritone of Lisandro Abadie made one hungry to hear more of it in Handel – although relatively young still, his voice had a rich resonance with plenty of weight. He handled the passage work of Zoroastre’s Sorge infausta una procella (Orlando) with aplomb and in the cadenza resisted the temptation to go up, wisely opting for the low F sharp.  A most pleasing low voice and one I’d certainly look forward to hearing again.  Clara Mouriz, a mezzo-soprano who is Spanish, but studied at the Royal Academy (Opera) claimed the Audience Prize partly, one suspects, by dint of a very spirited and accurate Venti turbini from Rinaldo which was a real crowd pleaser.  Although she sang her two previous arias (from Serse and Imeneo) with enough style and a warm timbre, it was not perhaps a wise choice to have two such similarly doleful (and long) items in tandem.  The young tenor Greg Tassell had a most personable stage presence and some very nice notes, but perhaps the occasion got to him a little and his inexperience showed as he allowed his voice to become a little unfocussed and woolly in some passages.  His biography in the programme reported that he had begun as a baritone in his teens but changed at 20 years to the tenor range and it was a first for this writer to hear Ombra mai fu sung live by this voice-type.  Unfortunately the lowest notes seemed to elude him somewhat last night and the thought occurred that he might have been better off singing in the brighter key of G than the F he chose.  However, it was interesting to reflect that just five years ago his more than adequate singing would probably have been good enough to win a prize – such has this competition evolved.

In conclusion, it must also be remarked that the London Handel Orchestra under the ever-reliable Laurence Cummings did a quietly amazing job.  Not once did we notice anything but accurate, stylish and alert playing – what an assistance to these young performers on an important night.  They will be lucky if they get this standard of Handel playing in many of their forthcoming opera engagements.

Sue Loder

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