For Opera-Bound, Competition Final Is All-Around Win

Belvedere Singing competition winners Kang Wang, Aigul Akhmetshina, and Mandla Mndebele.
(Photos by Helikon Opera Moscow)
By Rebecca Schmid

MOSCOW — When the jury gathered for the final round of the International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition in the stately converted courtyard of the Helikon Opera on July 6, its members were confronted with a daunting task: Of fifteen young, gifted singers — many of whom have already gathered experience on leading stages such as the Metropolitan Opera or Bregenzer Festspiele — one must emerge with the first prize.

Helikon Opera Moscow, venue of the international Belvedere voice competition.

Voice competitions unarguably serve as important launch pads in musicians’ careers. The Belvedere, founded in 1982, can claim Pretty Yende, Angela Gheorgiu, and Elīna Garanča among its discoveries, even though the last did not win one of the top three prizes. But competitions can also turn the art of interpretation into a kind of sporting event. Rather than being evaluated for the subtleties with which a singer colors a piece, value judgments which are by nature subjective, the artist is subjected to quantifiable criteria.

The process by which singers enter into direct rivalry raises a number of difficult questions. Can one compare the introspective delivery of a Tchaikovsky aria for baritone with the coquettish Rossini of a mezzo-soprano? Should vocal quality or size be allowed to trump diction and style? Can one predict the potential of a singer based on the delivery of a single aria, or even four arias? Is it a competition’s role to promote the careers of those who have already proven their resilience in the industry or to introduce new, promising voices onto the scene?

The Belvedere has from the beginning aimed to be a kind of “singer’s market” where the jury, which consists exclusively of intendants and casting directors, can identify and hire talent on the spot. So, while Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina, 22, this year took first prize and an engagement at the Helikon Opera despite having considerably less stage experience than other candidates, she was not the only one to reap immediate benefits. The soprano Rocio Perez, 27, who had not only quicksilver high notes but also a choreographed routine on tap for Olympia’s aria “Les oiseaux dans la charmille” from Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, won engagements from not one but two jury members to sing at the Semperoper Dresden and the Teatro Real Madrid.

Coming in second place was the Australian tenor Kang Wang, who at 27 has sung roles at the Met and Theater Basel. He also landed an engagement at the Bolshoi Theater. Wang has all the charisma and vocal resonance to forge an international career, but his intonation was not always stable and his Italian vowels not sufficiently round in “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La bohème.

Listeners who did not experience the semifinals were of course limited to judging based on single arias that may or not have corresponded to the singers’ voice type. While Akhmetshina scored her victory singing “Nacqui all’affanno,” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola, her aria selection for previous rounds also included Tchaikovsky and Cilea. Based on the final round, she has a lush, flexible timbre and exudes natural charm but rarely produced the pearly coloratura that bel canto singing demands.

South African baritone Mandla Mndebele reaped not just third prize and the audience prize but also an engagement at the Theater Erfurt in Germany with Ford’s aria “E sogno? O realtà?” from Verdi’s Falstaff. The 24-year-old impressed with a booming timbre and clear diction, bringing down the house with long applause, but his declamatory style at times pushed his voice to the limit, and his posture was too often stiff, his arms hanging straight down at his sides.

The American baritone John Brancy, who won the prize of the media jury, was a less forceful presence, conveying tender longing in Prince Yeletsky’s aria “Ja vas lyublyu,” from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. Melancholy lurked beneath the surface of his smooth, legato lines. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt that the 28-year-old has stage experience singing Tchaikovsky (he performed the title role of Eugene Onegin at Florida Grand Opera earlier this season).

There was yet another fine baritone who walked away with not a single prize: Carles Pachón, who at only 22 showed a ripe and seductive enough timbre for “Bella siccome un angelo” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and knew exactly how to communicate to the audience with his eyes and hands. Serbian bass Sava Vemic, a protégé of the Met’s Young Artist Development Program, also left empty-handed despite having offered a noble, polished take on Prince Gremin’s aria “Lyubvi vse vozrasti pokorni” from Eugene Onegin. If his timbre displayed a hard finish, he also stood out for his expert dynamic control.

Bass-baritone Boris Prýgl – snapped up by the Deutsche Oper am Rhein – brought a rich tone and just the right touch of desperation to “Ves’ tabor spit” from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, but his voice lacks a distinct color. The Belarusian bass Alexander Roslavets, who won an engagement at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, achieved a notable legato with the orchestra in “Come dal ciel precipita” from Verdi’s Macbeth but had an unfortunate tendency to place his vowels at the back of the throat. Even more problematic in this regard was the performance of bass-baritone Pavel Tchervinsky, who opened the evening with Leporello’s catalog aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni; without appropriate diction and phrasing, such a well-known number can only fall flat.

The mezzo-soprano Vasilisa Berzhanskaya was both coquettish and technically grounded as Rosina in “Una voce poco fà” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia – a role she sings at the Deutsche Oper Berlin this October – but her speech patterns often lacked authenticity and her embellishments were not stylistically appropriateThe soprano Jihyun Cecilia Lee, meanwhile, stood out for her beautiful French diction, attractive vibrato, and emotionally subtle performance of Micaela’s aria Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” from Bizet’s Carmen.

Brazilian mezzo-soprano Josevane de Jesus Santos, a member of the Stuttgart Opera Studio, similarly showed tremendous promise in “Parto, parto” from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, bringing a soulful, weeping quality to the music that made it possible to overlook her sometimes tight vibrato. The Croatian native Nela Šarić brought a creamy, unforced voice to “E strano” from Verdi’s La traviata but did not muster the needed fire to portray Violetta. Oksana Sekerina, meanwhile, easily brought to life the dreamy Tatiana in “Otchego eto prezhde ne znala” from Eugene Onegin.

In the end, each singer must be valued for his or her individual qualities, and making it to finals is a feat in itself. Of more  than 1,000 singers who entered qualifying rounds, 163 were selected to compete in Moscow. Only 9 percent of those participants made the final cut. Whether or not they emerged with a cash prize is not the bottom line.

In addition to intendants, respected managers from Austria and Switzerland were in the audience. They, too, have the responsibility of guiding young singers to take on the right roles, at the right pace. The real competition takes place every day in the opera industry, where artists from all over the world are vying for roles and ensemble or studio positions. At the very least, the experience of being scrutinized by a jury may make auditions seem like a cakewalk.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional reception of Kurt Weill.