Birmingham Conservatoire Students vie for The Ashleyan Opera Prize

The Ashleyan Opera Prize: Post-graduate students of the Birmingham Conservatoire with Janis Kelly (Adjudicator) Jon French (Accompanist) Julian Pike (Organiser). Recital Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, 13. 5. 2011. (GR)

Contestants in order of appearance:

Helen Latham Soprano
Olga Zhorova Soprano
Andrea Pfenninger Soprano
Anna Jeffers Mezzo
Edward Harrison Tenor
Ella  Casanova Soprano
Francesca Costigan Sopran0

Most music lovers take pleasure in singing competitions. This one was of a high standard, with arias from opera composers as far apart historically as Handel and Stravinsky, but above all it was extremely enjoyable. The Ashleyan Opera Prize is awarded annually and is open to post-graduate students of the Birmingham Conservatoire. The only negative factor was the number in the audience. Perhaps the ‘Boobs and Brass’ concert in the neighbouring Adrian Boult Hall with the girls of the Brighouse and Rastrick Band had something to do with it.

It’s always difficult being first on the bill on such occasions, but Helen Latham held our attention with Michaela’s big number from Bizet’s Carmen and Mimi’s ‘Donde Lieta’ from La Boheme. I thought her personality would have been better suited to a more joyful excerpt, particularly since she chose the same repertoire to begin last year’s Mario Lanza Competition (another regular in the Conservatoire diary, this year’s contest takes place on June 4th). The second soprano, Olga Zhorova, sang three excerpts: I thought Volkhova’s Lullaby from Sadko by Rimsky Korsakov suited her best. Andrea Pfenninger was next and her offering of Ännchen’s arietta from Act II Scene 1 of Weber’s Der Freischütz was the best item so far, convincing in her encouragement for girls to play the field. Her German diction, plus her English and Italian in her other two selections, all came across well.

Performers need confidence to pull off their character portrayals and Anna Jeffers has it in spades. A regular at these Conservatoire events, she has caught my eye before: I vividly remember her as Ruggerio in an excerpt from Handel’s Alcina in last year’s Opera Scenes (another annual Conservatoire feast to look out for). This time it was as Juno, another of Handel’s trouser roles choosing ‘Iris, hence away’ from Semele. This fach may be the key to her future. Although possibly not the best quality voice on display, there was an evenness of tone and some fluid Italian phrasing in her other contribution, ‘Crude Sorte’ from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. Her animated style delighted her fellow students present.

The lone male on the programme was tenor Edward Harrison. His choices of ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Handel’s Serse and ‘Che gelida manina’ from Puccini’s La Boheme were unusual and ambitious, but I thought he showed potential. Ella Casanova demonstrated she was a natural for opera’s female comic roles with both her offerings. First there was ‘La Folie’ from Rameau’s Platée, complete with all the actions and a touch of hysteria. And then came her juicy rendition of Norina’s cavatina from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale – the wistful dreams of a lovesick teenager, the wicked little laugh, the scheming minx, the pyrotechnic finale, they were all there.

Francesca Costigan was the last contender. She opened with Dvořak’s ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka. Singing such a well-known aria opens the door for comparisons with the numerous commercial recordings around. But with a voice like hers, she can bear the contrast. With beautiful timbre, sure technical control and a clear understanding with her own accompanist (not that Jon French hadn’t done his brilliant best with the previous six contestants) this was a breathtaking performance. And her ‘No word from Tom’ from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress was equally impressive, although I might have preferred something in a more contrasting vein.

I very rarely agree with the adjudicator at such events. My markings gave Jeffers, Casanova and Costigan identical totals; they were all excellent and good luck to them and the other contestants in the future. If I had had to choose one above the others, it would have been Casanova. Janis Kelly summed it all up and was left with a difficult decision, but she gave it to Costigan, while Jeffers was highly commended.

Geoff Read