Very High Standards Attained by Young RNCM Students

13/02/2017

Competition Final of the 32nd Annual Frederic Cox Award for Singing: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 6.2.2017. (RJF)

Finalists:

Rhiain Taylor (mezzo soprano) – ‘Cruda Sorte’ from L’italiana in Algeri – Rossini; ‘Dove sei, amato bene?’ from Rodelinda – Handel; ‘Wanderers Nachtlied’ D768 – Schubert; ‘I Have Dreamt’ from Wuthering Heights – Herrmann; ‘Away’ – Halley

Matthew Nuttall (baritone) – ‘Papagena, Papagena’ from Die Zauberflöte – Mozart; ‘Ganymed’ D544 – Schubert; ‘Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei’ from I Puritani – Bellini; ‘Come master, observe the host’ from The Rake’s Progress – Stravinsky; ‘The Hippo’ – Venables

Rebecca Barry (mezzo soprano) – ‘Vani sono i lamenti … Svegliatevi nel core’ from Giulio Cesare – Handel; ‘Botschaft’ – Brahms; ‘Seguidilla’ from Carmen – Bizet; ‘Bring him this orchid … Flowers bring to every year’ from The Rape of Lucretia – Britten; ‘Land of dreams’ from 5 Cabaret Songs – Blake

Fiona Finsbury (soprano) – ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ from Die Zauberflote – Mozart; ‘Fugitive’ from Of A Certain Age – Cipullo; ‘Waldesgesprach’ – Schumann; ‘Max Alone’ from Where The Wild Things Are – Knussen; ‘Chacun Le Sait’ from La Fille du regiment – Donizetti

John Ieuan Jones (baritone) – ‘Non più andrai’ from Le nozze di Figaro – Mozart; ‘Zueignung’ – Strauss; ‘Look! Through the port’ – Britten; ‘In Memoriam’ – Samuel; ‘Kogda bï zhizn domashnim krugom’ from Eugene Onegin – Tchaikovsky; ‘The Green-Eyed Dragon’ – Charles

Charlotte Badham (mezzo soprano) – ‘D’un sventurato amante … Pena tiranna’ from Amadigi di Gaula – Handel; ‘Von Ewiger Liebe’ – Brahms; ‘Ah Tanya, Tanya’ from Eugene Onegin – Tchaikovsky; ‘J’ai versé le poison dans cette coupe d’or’ from Cléopâtre – Massenet; ‘Prandial Plaint’ from All You Who Sleep Tonight – Dove

In my review of this major RNCM competition last year, I regretted the poor public turnout compared with the pleasures and quality to be seen and heard and, especially, the traditions of yesteryear. I am pleased to report some improvement of support from the public to go along with that from fellow students, some of the latter, perhaps, with thoughts of their own futures. What still remains lacking for the audience is in respect of the sung programme requirements for the competitors. There is no mention as to what criteria they have to fulfil, which determines what they present; nor, to the disappointment of an old supporter like me who goes back to the era of Frederic Cox, any explanation of who this great name was – without whom there would not be the RNCM as we know it.

First awarded in 1986, this competition is one of the major awards open to trainee singers at the RNCM. Winning it is a major addition to any students CV. The list of past winners includes names that have gone on to considerable careers in opera and includes such well known names as Simon Keenlyside, the first awardee, Amanda Roocroft, Sara Fulgoni, Linda Richardson, Jane Irwin, Roland Wood Kathryn Rudge and Bryony Williams to name a few. The award is named after Frederic Cox, not merely a former principal of the college, but the man without whose vision the RNCM might not have come into existence. Although those singers named above have made careers in opera, the competition aims to give credit to those with vocal skills that might take them into careers in the oratorio or recital field. The structure of the competition serves all possible outcomes and strengths and is accompanied with a cheque for £1,000 to help fund a further year’s study at the College for the winner. 

The award is open to fourth year undergraduate students and postgraduates. The candidates are required to perform a programme of approximately twenty minutes duration to include the following categories:

  1. A 19th century operatic aria of the Romantic period in the original language.
  2. Lied or Lieder of not less than three minutes, and not more than five, by any of the following composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, Mahler.
  3. Baroque or classical recitative and aria.
  4. 20th century operatic aria in any language.
  5. A song sung in English.

The ideal programme is to include Italian, French and German languages in addition to the English song requirement. After preliminary round within the College the winner is decided by a panel of three professional singers, often alumni of the RNCM.  On this occasion, they were: Lynne Dawson (Chair) who is the Head of the School of Vocal Studies at the RNCM; Susan Roper, Deputy Head of the School of Opera and Vocal Studies at the RNCM; Della Jones, the internationally renowned Welsh mezzo-soprano.  The piano accompanists were Jonathan Fisher, Emily Hooker, Robin Humphreys and David Jones.

Looking over the contents of what we listened to from the contestants I was again amazed at the wide variety of aria and song to be heard. It is a virtue, as well as a demand, of the width of knowledge and understanding of style that these young singers undertake so as to entertain an audience, be it in the theatre or the solo stage of a concert hall. It is not just what they bring to the music in terms of their vocal characteristics, but how they convey in all aspects of their presentations, the composer’s intentions. To get under the skin of what Mozart or Handel, or one of the composers of lied intended, and bring it out is the kernel of a singer’s skill. The quality starts with their capacity as singers in terms of vocal qualities of tone and capacity for characterisation, but also what their bodies say about them. I have been privileged to see and hear some of the greatest performers on the operatic and concert stage over nearly sixty years and still find difficulty in analysing the great from the merely good. The first thing I noticed was how each walked in and took their first bow. Did they have that not easily definable quality of presence, where and how did they place and use their hands. I make some comments along with my observations below.

First up was mezzo Rhiain Taylor whose opening contribution would have doubtless pleased the guest adjudicator. Miss Taylor’s rich mezzo tone and neat vocal divisions in the demanding coloratura of Rossini’s twentieth opera of 1817 were impressive. She followed with an aria from Handel. Slower in tempo its demands subtly different from Rossini, but also impressively encompassed. Her singing, and good body language, made a very favourable impact.

Immediately following was baritone Matthew Nuttall and straight into Mozart. Well, not quite straight into. He and his accompanist brought some of what I might call chutzpah to the proceedings that made me sit up and listen with extra keenness. This was also present at the conclusion of the aria as Papageno stands and counts the time to what he fears might be his demise. Doing nothing, standing quite still as the audience waited for his next note or phrase were the ultimate comic touches realized to perfection. I found his lieder contribution a little bland whilst his ‘Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei’ from Bellini’s final opera was smoothly sung.

With brighter tone that the first mezzo Rebecca Barry made a better shot at the Handel as against a rather carefully sung ‘Seguidilla’ from Carmen where she perhaps needed some more vocal hip swinging and sensuousness.

After the interval we had our only soprano. Already a prize winner in an RNCM competition, she scored well for deportment and her own spoken introductions to each item, the only contestant to do so. With the benefit of height, physical presence and use of arms and hands she had immediate impact and charisma. I enjoyed her ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ as Pamina agonises over Tamino’s lack of response to her pleas. Elsewhere I found her tone a little thin at times and lacking in variety of colour, which marred her scales and decoration in Donizetti’s ‘Chacun Le Sait’ from La Fille du régiment famous, or notorious, for the number of high Cs demanded of the tenor.

Accompanist Robin Humphreys was again the support of a baritone in Mozart. In this case Welshman John Ieuan Jones as the eponymous Figaro in perhaps the composer’s most famous opera. Exhibiting some physical presence he was a little light in vocal tone and variety to relish da Ponte’s somewhat sarcastic phrases to Cherubino as he despatches him to life as a soldier. He had good diction and variety of tone colour in Britten’s ‘Look! Through the port’ and made a good fist of Russian in Onegin’s ‘Kogda bï zhizn domashnim krugom’.

The last contribution was another mezzo, Charlotte Badham. With an appealing stage presence and clear strong voice she made an immediate vocal impact in her expression and vocal variety in her choice of Handel’s ‘D’un sventurato amante … Pena tiranna’, from the rarely heard Amadigi di Gaulai. Her exotic choice of a French aria was pleasing as was her clarity and her command of the language. In each of her contributions she characterised well and sang with a variety of expression and vocal tone. Hers was an excellent conclusion to an enjoyable evening and she was certainly in my mix for the eventual winner.

The adjudicators did not keep us overlong before Della Jones gave the winner as Matthew Nuttall who received the congratulations of the other competitors and the audience as he received his doubtless welcome cheque towards his future studies at the RNCM. His sense of timing, and stage presence, could give him a good start in his chosen profession, in whatever direction it takes. I would suggest, along with at least two of the other competitors, he has a chance of making a success and impact in a highly competitive profession.

Robert J Farr

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