Young Talent Was Plentiful, Artistic Style Was Missing

First prize winner Sungho Kim, a South Korean tenor, sang ‘Cercherò lontana terra’ from Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquale.’
(Photos by Ivars Kezberis)
By Rebecca Schmid

JŪRMALA, Latvia – The opera industry has never been more international and packed with young talent. Nowhere is this more clear than at competitions, where candidates from all the over the world vie for prizes that can give them an edge over the many other qualified singers out there.

Prize winners, from left: Georgios Alexandros Stavrakakis, Sungho Kim, Pavel Petrov.

The International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition, originally a Viennese institution that has been traveling to various locations since 2013, brought 147 singers to the resort town of Jūrmala on the Baltic Sea, narrowing down the selection to sixteen finalists who performed at a gala with the Jūrmala Festival Orchestra under Ilmārs Lapiņš on June 10. The line-up represented a total of thirteen countries, ranging from Brazil to Belarus.

As jury member and artistic director of Covent Garden’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, David Gowland admitted in an interview, picking out winners is a “particular challenge” when the market is so saturated. He said that while jury members representing German houses with fixed ensembles had an eye out for “people who can fit into a troupe,” he was keener to scout for potential.

He is especially keen to find that talent in unexpected places and mold it into something “valid to the international market.” Today’s special voices are not necessarily coming through the “conservative, white, middle-class education system,” he said.

Bass Georgios Alexandros Stavrakakis won second prize and an engagement in Madrid.

Jury chair and former Opera de Monte Carlo general director John M. Mordler added that not only jury members but agents who attend competitions have the opportunity to spot “natural talent” that the singers might not know how to use properly. He cited sound quality, accuracy, technique, communication, and personality as the criteria upon which he and the other judges make their decisions, while admitting that some singers sound as if they were “auditioning for the Arena di Verona” (in other words, as if they were trying to fill a stadium).

The level of technical assuredness and sheer size of the young voices today is jaw-dropping. While common wisdom holds that there is a surplus of sopranos and not enough good male voices, the tables seem to be turning: Only three of this year’s finalists – and none of the top prize-winners – were female.

But as singers are expected to master an ever-widening range of roles and languages (especially in ensemble houses), certain standards for style and presentation sometimes get left by the wayside. The repertoire selected for the final concert only made this more apparent, revolving around classics of Mozart, Verdi, and other Italian composers. The baritones Jorge Antonio Espino Martínez and Zachariah Njoroge Karithi were even asked to sing the same aria, “Io morrò, ma lieto in core,” from Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Pavel Petrov sang ‘Che gelida manina’ from Puccini’s ‘La bohème’ and won third prize.

The choice of aria can of course be decisive in a competition. The role must be a good fit in terms of both voice type and personality. And the singer must make the performance believable in concert delivery, where communicative means are more limited than in a staged production.

The 26-year-old Martínez, a student at the Curtis Institute who won an engagement to the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, vocally conveyed some of the stoic desperation of the character of Rodrigo but continually clutched his blazer with one hand. Karithi, 30, who has performed at the Hamburg State Opera, was a more polished presence but a bit monotone in his dramatic expression.

The South African soprano Frances du Plessis, 24, brought a sweet but full-bodied timbre to Micaela’s aria, “C’est des contrebandiers le refuge ordinaire,” from Bizet’s Carmen while standing with her arms stiffly at her sides. At the other end of the spectrum was Andrei Danilov, 29, who flapped his hands up and down at every “Clic clac” in “Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach” from Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. The Russian tenor, who won a master class at the Bolshoi Opera, impressed with a piercing voice and solid high notes, but his French diction could use improvement.

The Romanian bass Benjamin Pop warmed up to a comic-enough delivery of the catalogue aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, drawing on a range of dynamic shadings and extraordinarily mature sound for his 27 years of age, but his vowels were at times swallowed. South African baritone Martin Mkhize, 29, who won an engagement at the Theater Dortmund, was an engaging presence in “Alzati, là tuo figlio” from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, communicating well with his hands and face. His phrasing and text delivery, however, could be smoother.

Soprano Camila Titinger sang ‘Dove sono’ from Mozart’s ‘Le nozze di Figaro.’

Camila Titinger, a 28-year-old soprano from Brazil who won an engagement to sing at the Aalto Theater and Philharmonie Essen, brought a seductive tone and nice diction but unnecessarily melodramatic phrasing to “Dove sono” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. The 28-year-old Russian tenor Shota Chibirov, in “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, impressed with his open vowels and an attractive color, while his phrasing was at times choppy and his cadenza stylistically exaggerated.

German mezzo-soprano Deniz Uzun, 29, who was chosen to sing at both the Gouverneur Philharmonic Orchestra Irkutsk and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, was a mildly coquettish presence, investing the cavatina “Cruda sorte” from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri with a dusky, smooth timbre but not enough fire. The 30-year-old Italian baritone Biagio Pizzuti, who left empty-handed, meanwhile phrased immaculately together with the orchestra in “Hai già vinta la cause” from Le nozze di Figaro and seemed to enjoy himself onstage rather than aiming to explicitly impress the jury.

Soprano Emma Moore, 30, brought a sincere, dreamy quality but wobbly vibrato to “Depuis le jour” from Charpentier’s Louise, and the 23-year old Slovenian baritone Jaka Mihelač a sense of urgency but not enough mastery of text to “Avant de quitter des lieux” from Gounod’s Faust. Russian tenor Boris Stepanov, 31, winner of the media jury prize, was meanwhile handed just the right aria with “Kuda, kuda vi udaljilis” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin. His youthful, high-lying voice captured a sense of tenderness, and he expressed the character’s nostalgia without chewing the scenery.

Russian tenor Boris Stepanov was awarded the media jury prize.

The voice of tenor Pavel Petrov, 26, who won third prize and engagements to both Latvian National Opera and the Opera Gala of the German AIDS Foundation, was also well-matched to “Che gelida manina” from Puccini’s La bohème. He brought authentic color and diction as well as a wide dynamic range to an aria that easily could have seem hackneyed toward the end of a long evening.

The 29-year-old Greek bass Georgios Alexandros Stavrakakis, who took home second prize and an engagement to the Teatro Real Madrid, impressed above all with the emotional depth he conveyed through an expansive, earthy timbre in “Ella giammai m’amò” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. One could empathize with character of the King of Spain, who realizes that his wife never loved him.

First-prize winner Sungho Kim, a 27-year-old tenor who also was chosen to sing at the Semperoper Dresden, was meanwhile technically rock-solid but not terribly poignant as the grieving Ernesto in “Cercherò lontana terra” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. And despite the power of his thoroughly attractive tone, it was a disappointment that he didn’t take the final note up an octave, particularly when he sang the aria a second time after the prizes were announced.

Perhaps because of the surplus of talent today, singers are inclined not to take artistic risks but instead deliver a solid performance that will post well on YouTube and win them engagements at houses around the world. It might be salubrious for both managers and singers to take a step back and place style in the foreground.

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 legacy of Kurt Weill.

Sixteen finalists performed at the gala. They represented thirteen countries, ranging from Brazil to Belarus.