Admirable performances in Wellington Regional Aria Contest

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions
(under auspices of Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society )

Aria Final
Contestants: Clare Hood, Olivia Sheat, Sophie Sparrow, Alexandra Gandionco, Alicia Cadwgan, Joe Hadlow, Will King, Beth Goulstone
Chief piano accompanist: Catherine Norton
Compère: Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 26 August 2018, 7 pm

Once upon a time, aria contests, as a part of a pattern of performing arts competitions, flourished in every city and many smaller towns throughout New Zealand.  There were aria competitions in both Wellington and the Hutt Valley, part of the pattern of competitions that also included instrumental music as well as dance and drama.

My first ‘professional’ contact with music was in my Upper Sixth year at Wellington College, with a casual back-stage role in the instrumental section of the Wellington Competitions Society which, for a fortnight, occupied both the main auditorium and the concert chamber of the Town Hall. Like anyone involved in the performing arts, it gave me a taste for, perhaps infected me with a love of performance generally. And though I never aspired to push my piano and cello playing to a level that might have had me involved in competitions, I was seduced by the atmosphere.

The Wellington Society fell on hard times and was wound up in the 1970s, and many other societies, including several in major cities have disappeared; but the Hutt Valley Competitions Society struggled on, fairly successfully. There is a parent body called PACANZ (Performing Arts Competitions Association of New Zealand), with about 60 ‘performing arts competitions’ and many other societies devoted to particular performing arts. About 24 of them seemed to include music in their range of activities.

The main prize in the Hutt contest was the Evening Post Aria Prize, funded by paper, and as the Post’s music critic, I performed the dual job of presenting the cheque to the winner in the Lower Hutt Little Theatre and then dashing back to the news room to get my review filed by midnight. But shortly after the merger of the Post with The Dominion, the association was ended.

It was wonderful that the newspaper’s role was soon picked up by the Dame Malvina Major Foundation’s sponsorship with a $4000 first prize, which continues. And it’s also a distinct advantage that it now takes place in Wellington City.

Adjudicator Richard Greager chose eight finalists from the 19 entrants who had been performing over the last three days: six women and two men. All the women were sopranos, the two men baritones. It might have made judging easier; it might not have…. The main accompanist was the splendid Catherine Norton, whose acutely judged, often brilliant accompaniments constantly caught the ear.

Four of the contestants had sung in the recent production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo from Eternity Opera; Joe Haddow sang Charon and Pluto in that opera; and he was a semi-finalist in the recent Lexus Song Quest. Last year he sang The Forrester in The Cunning Little Vixen (New Zealand School of Music). Here, he was awarded the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding competitor, having sung Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni with stylish wit, and Philip II’s deeply moving lament, ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ from Verdi’s Don Carlo; one of Verdi’s most profound expressions of self-doubt, in grieving, well modulated tones.

Last year Will King and Alexandra Gandionco also had lead parts in the NZSM’s Cunning Little Vixen and both sang in the recent Orfeo: King in the title role, Gandianco as Euridice. This evening King was named winner of the Dame Malvina Major Aria, which comes with the Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup; from his role in this year’s Orfeo, he chose ‘Possente spirto’ for this evening, with beautiful ornamentation and admirable characterisation. Later he sang ‘Hai già vinta la causa’ expressing the Count’s furious determination to get his dues from Susanna before her marriage. It was simply a most accomplished, spirited performance, and there remained little chance that he was not about to be named the contest winner.

Alexandra Gandionco sang the important (male) role of Gold-Spur, The Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen last year, and here she sang ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’ from Fidelio and ‘Je suis encore tout étourdie’ from Massenet’s Manon. Her voice is an attractive, flexible instrument and her demeanour and gestures very comfortable.

Olivia Sheat had principal roles in Eternity Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro last year, while she sang the prominent role of Proserpine in Orfeo this year. In the evening contest she sang the aria ‘Chi cede al furor’ from Handel’s Serse, and The Song to the Moon from Rusalka (in Czech). She is in good control of phrasing, keenly aware of emotions and sense, and with a lively stage presence.

Alicia Cadwgan had sung Susanna in Wanderlust Opera’s send-up, ‘other’ Marriage of Figaro last year, Her arias this evening were ‘The trees on the mountains’ from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and the famous aria from Bellini’s Sonnambula – ‘Ah, non credea mirati … ah, non giunge’; warm timbre, a voice comfortable at the top, and an attractive theatrical personality: the Bellini is a taxing aria that demands singular, contrasting emotions and technical talents.

Runner-up in this year’s contest was Sophie Sparrow, and she also won the Patricia Hurley Opera Tours Award. She was another soprano with an attractive voice, a reasonably disciplined top, singing Blonde’s taxing aria, ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit…’ from Die Entführung aus dem Serail and later, the familiar aria from Handel’s Alcina, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, emerging as one of the better singers in the coloratura class with her flurries of startling notes.

Soprano Clare Hood, who had the first slot in the evening’s performances, also sang the same Entführing aria, well projected with nice dynamic variety, and then Olympia’s brilliant ‘Doll’s’ aria, from The Tales of Hoffmann. It was a good fit with her voice. And Beth Goulstone chose arias by Mozart and Bizet: ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ from Così fan tutte: Despina’s advice on seduction for the two female victims of the amorous test that is the opera’s concern. And from Les pêcheurs de perles, Leïla’s lovely ‘Comme autrefois’: even voice, expressive tone, good French; it was a very nice aria to end the evening with.

The prize announcements at the end caused me to make a mistake about the winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Prize for  ‘the young aria entrant with the most potential’. The name I heard and recorded was Cadwgen. I couldn’t hear very accurately, as I was seated near the back, but had no doubt that it was Alicia Cadwgen (not a common name), as recorded in the programme, and who did indeed sing as I recorded above. I had no reason to doubt that Alicia was among the prize winners. 

I am told however that the winner of that prize was in fact Micaela Cadwgen who was not among the eight finalists who sang on Sunday evening. It’s a pity Micaela’s place in the contest had not been specifically mentioned for the benefit of those who were not personally acquainted with the contestants, and would have concluded, even if they had momentary uncertainty about hearing the first name correctly, that it was indeed the singer who took part on the evening. 

I am embarrassed at having been so misled. 

A feature of the contest in the past couple of years has been the engagement of the talented Georgia Jamieson Emms as compère, giving a pithy, knowledgeable precis of each opera, with her own irreverent translation of the words such as in the Catalogue Aria in Don Giovanni, of Despina’s seduction advice to her two virtuous young friends in Così fan tutte and the Count’s furious determination to get his dues from Susanna before her wedding in The Marriage of Figaro.  The contest can use all such enlivening contributions to increase interest.

There has been an interesting shift in the music chosen by contestants: the name Puccini does not appear, and Verdi, only once. Five contestants chose Mozart and Handel appeared twice; otherwise, composers ranged between Monteverdi and Carlisle Floyd 400 hundred years later.

Since I have been hearing the contests since the late 1980s, I have to say that the standard has risen dramatically: there was really no singer who wasn’t really up to good performance level. In any case, it’s a very worthwhile and enjoyable evening’s music, enlivened particularly by the competitive element.


One thought on “Admirable performances in Wellington Regional Aria Contest

  1. Jenny Culliford says:

    It was Micaela Cadwgan who won the award for the young aria singer with the most potential. We did not hear her on Sunday night.
    Kind regards

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