Wellington Regional Aria Contest: Dame Malvina Major Prize


Wellington Regional Aria Contest Final: Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society; Adjudicator: Angela Gorton. Finalists: Rose Blake, Kieran Rayner, Amelia Berry, Elitsa Kappatos, Olga Gryniewicz. Pianists: Catherine McKay and Emily Mair

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Sunday 23 August 2009

In recent years what used to be the Aria Contest of the Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society has struggled to survive. For many years it was The Evening Post Aria, but after The Dominion and The Evening Post merged in 2002, the paper dispensed with that responsibility. It has now been taken under the wing of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation and the first prize is now a generous $4000.

That being so, it was surprising that there were only five entrants to the aria competition, compared with more than 20 in some earlier years. There was a clash with the aria contest in Dunedin and there were other apparently competing events that prevented many singers from other parts of the country from taking part this year.

The adjudicator was Angela Gorton. The accompanist Catherine Norton who gave the most sensitive support to all but one of the singers; Emily Mair accompanied Kieran Rayner.

All singers were between 20 and 22 years of age, and all but one of them had appeared in the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Semele.

The first contestant was Rose Blake who was the alternate Semele. She chose Marzelline’s aria from Fidelio, ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’. It is usually hard to take the first position in such a contest and nervousness and probably inadequate warming up affected her voice which, though proving quite strong, was tight and her phrasing uneven. It was no surprise that her second aria, ‘I’ll take no less’, from Semele, found her in much better shape, more practised and confident in her gestures as a result of the stage experience.

Kieran Rayner, who had sung the role of Athamus in Semele, made a singular impression at once, singing the aria ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähne’ from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, letting the audience realize that there’s more to it that the familiar Marietta’s Lied. He showed a naturally attractive voice, with comfortable delivery, never under pressure. His second aria showed similar accomplishment, from a contrasting opera style, Ambroise Thomas ‘other’ opera, Hamlet: ‘O vin, dissipe la tristesse’ (not something that you’ll find in the Shakespeare version). He sang with flair, in good French, his rhythm, phrasing and dynamics all under fine discipline. I had no doubt that he would be hard to beat in this small field.

Amelia Berry was the Semele that I saw on the opening night but she refrained from making use of that experience. She sang the charming, lyrical aria ‘Ruhe sanft’ from Mozart’s unfinished opera Zaïde and later, ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville. She failed to articulate the top notes in the Mozart; perhaps her choice had taken her out of her natural register, or perhaps it was simply nerves. So I was not surprised with a more comfortable performance of her Rossini, lying a little lower though with more bravura, which she carried off with agility and accuracy. In this it was easier to gauge the quality of her voice, and I thought she might win one of the prizes.

Elitsa Kappatos did not have a role in Semele. Though she chose pieces that are very familiar, pieces that make considerable demands, her performances were creditable. ‘O mio babbino caro’ was a little shrill, but her intonation was accurate and she made a nice personal impression. She gave herself every advantage in the Habanera from Carmen, with an appropriate costume, she refrained from excessive gestures, yet carried off the confident, strong-willed, mezzo role with a certain flair.

Olga Gryniewicz had made a vivid impression in Semele, as Iris, and she chose one of her main arias in the contest: ‘Endless pleasure’. It was a shade less striking here, removed from the theatrical setting, the line a little too staccato, and her voice monochrome. But she did well to tackle Norina’s fine, coloratura aria from Don Pasquale, ‘Quel guardo il cavaliere’. Her voice coped with its high, airy, innocent character, her Italian was good, and rhythmic sense – rubato – well cultivated. She draws attention as a spunky, characterful singer; but an underlying strain is audible, reflecting a voice production difficulty.

Nevertheless, I had thought she would get a mention among the prize winners.

Angela Gorton awarded the Dame Malvina Major Foundation prize and the prize for the singer displaying the most consistent standard, as well as the Jenny Wollerman award for the best song or aria in French to Amelia Berry. Kieran Rayner was given the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding singer in the senior vocal class and the Robin Dumbell Cup for the singer with the most potential. In effect he was runner-up.

Finally, I must draw attention to the longstanding devotion to the aria contest’s survival by its almost single-handed manager, Betty Bennett, for the Hutt Valley Competitions Society. It is high time that others concerned with singing in Wellington took a share of the responsibility for the contest. Contests may not be favoured in certain quarters but they still represent, in a career that is based in public performance, an important way to gain attention in a frighteningly competitive scene.

Let us remember that Wellington’s own competitions society collapsed in the 1970s; since then the society in the Hutt Valley has filled the gap. It must not be allowed to stumble.

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