Italian bass Adolfo Corrado is the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2023

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Final of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2023: Beth Taylor (mezzo-soprano), Nombulelo Yende (soprano), Adolfo Corrado (bass), Jessica Robinson (soprano), Siphokazi Molteno (mezzo-soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ryan Bancroft and Michael Christie (conductors). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 18.6.2023. (PCG)

Adolfo Corrado winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2023

The BBC asked me to cover all the stages of the fortieth BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. I was unable to do so: I was in Manchester earlier in the week for Sir Mark Elder’s performances of Elgar’s The Apostles and The Kingdom. Luckily, the four heats which preceded the final, and the final of the song competition, were available as full relays on BBC TV and iPlayer. So, I could catch up before the Sunday afternoon final, which was then relayed on BBC in the evening.

In the forty years of this competition, one has noted with pleasure and gratification the continued increase of the geographical spread of the entries. This year brought the first competitor from Colombia. Julieth Lozano Rolong’s lively personality clearly captivated audiences both in the hall and on television – so much so that she was awarded the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa audience prize even though she did not make the final. The professionalism and artistic competence of those singers also grew commendably in practical experience. More than one entry from participating countries has been permitted, so for example we had two competitors each in the closing rounds from South Africa and South Korea. In the past, there singers with great natural ability had sometimes failed to make the ideal impression, either because of lack of training or simple nervousness. Nowadays one almost takes for granted the fully professional standards of all those who take part. Many of them went through careful study in conservatories and colleges around the globe, or training schemes operated by opera companies.

In the past, too, many of those who did not win nevertheless proceeded to major international careers. I would say the same may be true of all those whom I heard on the television earlier in the week. The competition regulations insist that there be one winner from each of the four heats, and one ‘wild card’ reserved for an extra finalist from the whole week. That can mean that some really worthy competitors fail to make it through to the final stage. Only one singer from the last three heats, for example, was selected for the final of the song prize; that was won by the South Korean Sunho Kim – who was again not one of those chosen for the final. Also deserving of mention was Johanna Wallroth from Sweden. She did not feature either in the song or orchestral finals, but her heat performance had shown great style and range in a wide-ranging selection of items from Rameau to Stravinsky. Apparently the procedure of selecting a finalist from each of the heats was adopted for the benefit of audiences who wished to see a winner chosen each evening. That introduces an element of potluck into the selection of the final line-up. Perhaps this rule should be reconsidered.

There is always, to be sure, an element of potluck in the actual results of any competition at such an elevated level. It may be that the selection of a programme pleases the idiosyncrasies of individual judges, or that the voice suits the chosen repertory. Then there is the state of health of contestants on the night, and their understandable nervousness, over and above the normal performance hazards of simple mistakes and accidents. Each of the contestants here had their body of fervent partisans. Even so, the generous Cardiff audience accorded enthusiastic receptions to all the competitors and welcomed the victory of Italian bass Adolfo Corrado even if they found it unexpected.

In my own opinion, Corrado had entered the final as the most likely victor of the contest. He had a superlative first round when his black-toned stentorian delivery ideally suited the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust. His programme for the final clearly echoed that for the earlier round: Mozart’s Figaro replaced Leporello from Don Giovanni, and Rossini’s Basilio from the Barber of Seville replaced Assur from Semiramide. All of these showed engagement with the words and plenty of tone even in faster passages. For the final item, employing the hall’s organ, we were given Pagano’s aria and cabaletta from Verdi’s early I Lombardi; this was less happily chosen. While Corrado’s legato was smoothly delivered, the rampaging final section, oddly curtailed by the composer, seemed to challenge the singer’s resources at this early stage of his career, and bluster replaced full-toned vocalism.

The South-African soprano Nombulelo Yende had shown a more convincing sense of command in her forthright delivery of Tatyana’s ‘letter song’ from Eugene Onegin. That is actually less a song than a full-blown operatic scena, which could have been disastrous in the time restraints of a competition. As it was, she had time only to precede the item with a similarly melodramatic aria from Moniuszko’s Halka. That did not really serve to demonstrate the other side of her singing abilities, presented in the first round with Bellini and Mozart. She has also appeared in the final of song competition and was delectably subtle in two of Barber’s Hermit Songs. I have no doubt that opera companies will take her up enthusiastically (there were delegations in the audience from around the world). If she refrains from undertaking too much too soon, she can be assured of a confident career.

The same can be said of her fellow South-African, mezzo-soprano Siphokazi Molteno. She also had included Barber, an aria from Vanessa, in her first-round heat, as well as French repertory in a triumphant aria from Gounod’s Sappho, which was echoed here by an excerpt from Massenet’s Werther. The choice of a ‘bleeding chunk’ from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier – seeming neither to begin or end – was odd even in the circumstances of a competition. She concluded her selection strongly with Rosina’s aria from The Barber of Seville; that matched her equally agile Handel in the first round and showed a sheer sense of display. She may have been ill-advised about her choice of programme. In the song final, she had bravely sung with much expression four modern songs, three of them South African, but was occasionally challenged for breath in four slow items.

The two home-grown contestants had the legions of supporters in the audience but tended to give slightly withdrawn performances. They failed at times to project into the hall with the strength that was really required. This may well be simply the result of being in an unaccustomed position at the front of the stage with the symphonically orientated BBC National Orchestra of Wales behind them, rather than an operatic orchestra sunk in a recessed pit below. Passages of a delicacy that might carry over the footlights can be masked when the wind players in particular are on the same acoustic level. That was conspicuously true for mezzo-soprano Beth Taylor from Scotland. She brought forward the horn obligato to the front of the stage in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, and the player sometimes challenged and sometimes smothered her voice. Only in her final rendition of Berlioz’s Le Spectre de la rose was there anything to challenge her superb delivery of Mahler’s Urlicht in the first round, a model of controlled emotion in the style of Kathleen Ferrier. Still, it might appear that we have another major British contralto in the making here.

Jess Robinson from Wales appeared in front of a Cardiff home crowd. She was unexpectedly nervous in the final and in her first-round appearance, and that undermined her clear talents and abilities. In the first round, she overcame these for a fiery performance of a spitfire satire by Jonathan Dove, disgracefully the only competitor in all the week to choose any operatic work by a living composer. But she had even then seemed nervous in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and this had clearly affected her tuning in Grieg’s Solveig’s Song which had appeared more folk-like than cultivated in tone. Unfortunately, in the final her choice of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, with its absolute priority on sustained line, tone and breath, served to highlight the same failings. She brought a sense of sparkle to the other items in her programme – Handel, Donizetti and Arditi – and her personality won over all listeners. Even so, the future development of her talents would seem to lie more in the direction of comic opera than the big dramatic roles, and nothing wrong in that.

With the slight equivocation over the balance between singers and orchestra I noted earlier (inevitable in the circumstances of competitions staged under concert conditions), the orchestra played well under the batons of Ryan Bancoft and Michael Christie. Each singer worked with the conductor who had supported them in earlier rounds and rehearsals. This sort of preparation clearly helps with the confidence of singers, some of whom – as we learned from the BBC interviews with competitors during the week – were taking their first steps onto an international operatic stage. All of these finalists, and many of the others who participated in the earlier rounds, will clearly be heading further onto those international stages. As talents like these continue to emerge from around the world, the future of singing on those stages looks bright. Never mind the persistent complaints of some of my fellow-critics who seem to perpetually hanker after a golden age of vocal artistry that lies just sufficiently far in the past as to defy recapture. Contemporary operatic staging and production may indeed be in a dismal condition, in need of urgent and considered reform; but the actual musical elements are clearly in no such danger of decline.

Thanks are once again due to the BBC, who gave blanket coverage to the competition on both radio and television throughout the week. Both the corporation themselves and Cardiff City Council – who help to sponsor the event – have been recently on the receiving end of trenchant and deserved criticism for their apparent reluctance to fund the arts. It is pleasing to see that elements in both bodies are still willing to fight for the resources to preserve an institution such as BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, now celebrating its fortieth anniversary. Sir Brian McMaster, chair of the very first jury who now returned to sit on this one, seemed amazed that his creation had endured so long. Those who missed elements of the competition, or wish simply to relive elements of it, will be pleased to learn that all of the concerts and other material will stay available on BBC iPlayer for a further month.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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