Talent aplenty at Wellington Aria Contest but poor publicity denies finalists deserved audience

Wellington Aria Contest Final, 2015
(Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 6 September 2015, 7pm

By 7.50pm on Sunday there were 5 people seated in the audience; by 7.10pm when the singing began there were about 30.  Of these, most appeared to be other contestants in the earlier stages, teachers, family members, and Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society officials.

Where is the publicity?  The previous Sunday there were well over 300 people attending a concert in Waikanae by Tākiri Ensemble, comprising Anna Leese, Bianca Andrew, Andrew Glover and Robert Tucker.  These people have all participated in competitions in their time – and look where they are now!  Today’s participants may be the stars of tomorrow, and none of them need feel ashamed of the standard of their singing.  The music-loving public enjoys hearing young singers, but needs to know when and where they are!

The more people who know about the event, the more people will come, and their admission charges will pay for the advertising.  There are plenty of vehicles for getting the word out: Upbeat! on Radio NZ Concert, Arts Wellington email newsletter, ‘Regional News’ supplement in the suburban newspapers – not to mention the ‘Coming Events’ pages of Middle-C web-site (where it had been listed).

The adjudicator at this year’s senior vocal competitions was Amanda Atlas, formerly Amanda Winfield, who studied at Victoria University with Emily Mair, and after some years overseas now lives in Christchurch, but works from time to time with Opera Australia.  The aria competition had 22 entries, and eight finalists were called. The performers were all of a high standard, making the adjudicator’s task difficult.

Mark Dorrell and Catherine Norton accompanied, in highly competent fashion; it was a pity that their names were not printed in the programme.  The piano lid was on the short stick, appropriate for accompanying young singers.  Both accompanists achieved delicate pianissimos as well as bold sounds when required.  The compère was again Georgia Jamieson Emms.  She has an actor’s flair for this role, summarising the plots of the operas in brief but witty vein.

The concert was in two halves, with the competitors singing, in the same order, an aria in each half.  I have noted each performer’s two offerings together in this review.

A couple of the performers, Olivia Sheat and Katherine McIndoe, had sung in last year’s contest.  Both had been in the award line-up then.  There were several singers this time whom I considered unlucky not to receive an award.

First up was Eliza Boom, who sang first ‘Si mi chiamano Mimi’ from Puccini’s La bohème, and later ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta’ from I Capuleti e Montecchi by Bellini.  These arias showed off her considerable range and her clear yet warm-toned voice.  It was produced well, and her enunciation, some of the best, and expressive variation of timbre were noteworthy.  She has a powerful voice, but good control.

Imogen Thirlwall was next; she is quite an experienced singer now, with operas and oratorios under her belt.  Her aria ‘The Trees on the Mountains’ from Susannah by Carlisle Floyd, composed 1953-1954.  The soprano produced a lovely resonance in her voice – using the resonators of the face rather than large-mouthed grimaces (not that any of these singers did that).  Her breathing was rather noisy at times.  High notes were mostly well managed, but there were hints of strain and forcing.  She gave expressive effect to the words along, with achieving the style of American opera well.

It was perhaps unfortunate that her second choice was rather similar in style, being ‘Glück das mir verblieb’ from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt.  The composer was not in America at this stage; he wrote it before he had to flee the Nazis.  While it was innovative, the inclusion of something from an earlier period would have better demonstrated her versatility.  She exhibited excellent control, yet also passion, and some spoken words were clear and given meaning.

Chelsea Dolman was the third soprano, and she sang ‘Come scoglio’ from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and André Previn’s opera A Streetcar named Desire, (1995), based on the famous Tennessee Williams play.  A dramatically sung recitative and aria, the Mozart demonstrated a voice of even tone throughout its range, with trills and runs managed very proficiently.

The Previn piece was premiered by Renée Fleming in 1998.  She is to visit this country in a week.  Another dramatic soprano (like Eliza Boom), Dolman put over the drama of the piece well.

Jamie Henare, the only male in the contest (it was the same ratio last year) is the possessor of a very fine bass voice; his splendid, full low notes are to die for.  He is young, and his voice will develop for years yet.  He gave us ‘Mi ravviso’ from La Sonnambula by Bellini, then later ‘Il lacerato spirito’, from Simon Boccanegra by Verdi.  Both suited his voice and revealed his range.  In the first he conveyed the character’s nostalgia for his youthful past very well.  In both he used the words – not just communicating them, but making them contribute to the total effect.  Their sonority conveyed the drama.

Ella Smith sang ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’ from Weber’s Der Freischütz.   Her later aria was ‘Il faut partir’ from La Fille du Regiment by Donizetti.  She had an easy style and a good, resonant voice, with pleasing tone when focused, but there were spots of insecure intonation.  Top notes were powerful and strong, and seemingly effortless.  Some miming and movement added to the projection of her arias.

Madison Nonoa was a name I did not know, and she was the only coloratura in the Final. Her first aria was the very florid ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ from Giulio Cesare by Handel, and her second the lovely ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.  She managed the very florid first aria with all its trills and runs with phenomenal skill.  As well as being very demanding, this aria was very fast, and it was notable that her tone was even throughout the considerable range, in fact this improved as time went on.  She was confident, but though the characterisation was good, communication with the audience was less so.

In the second, her manner and voice were appropriate for Pamina.  Just a few times there was some loss of control, but mostly her voice was very focused, and she was able to broaden her tone beautifully.

Olivia Sheat gave us two lovely arias: ‘Donde lieta’ from La bohème and ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s Rusalka.  I found her performance thrilling, and full of feeling, employing excellent vocal technique.  The second aria is such a particularly beautiful one, and it was radiantly sung in the difficult Czech language.  Despite this, the enunciation was superb; it was the only aria in the contest not in Italian, English, German or French (there was only one of the latter).

Those magical opening chords from the piano sounded stunning, and Olivia had the power to fulfil expectations.

The last contestant was Katherine McIndoe, who sang ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ from Alcina by Handel, followed later by ‘Embroidery Aria’ from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.  Strong and secure with good vocal tone, Katherine nevertheless had a few unsure notes in the first aria, and I found her
breathing a little too apparent.  The Britten aria came over very dramatically; it was a fine portrayal of Ellen Orford.

The Patricia Hurley Opera Tours award for the best rendition of a song/aria in Italian went to Madison Nonoa, the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup for the young aria entrant with the most potential to Jamie Henare, the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding competitor (in the whole competition, not just the final) went to Imogen Thirlwall.

The runner-up to the Dame Malvina Major Foundation aria was Chelsea Dolman, and the winner (and of the Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup) was Katherine McIndoe.  Congratulations to all the winners, and to The Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society for encouraging young singers and putting on a splendid evening of singing.


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