(and we taste disappointment for the first time)
The second eight-hour concert hits differently. Repertoire begins to repeat, Bourgie Hall’s “discount sepulchre” vibe closes in; you glare with outrage and longing at the judges’ complimentary cushions. It becomes almost impossible to resist snap judgements: the nervous singer who slips, landing on a note or the baritone—it’s always a baritone—struggling with hands that keep burrowing into his pockets, all are instantly and unfairly dropped down an imaginary chute. If any competitions are looking for a consultant to spice things up, I’m available. You’ll need insurance.
Performers that manage to touch you, in this state, deserve special praise. It’s like getting a rabid dog to jump sweetly through hoops. All the more remarkable that the only two singers to compete in the two categories, Aria and Art Song, stood out in both. Today Canadian-Omani mezzo Deepa Johnny sang Bizet’s setting of Victor Hugo’s poem “Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe” like she was lovingly burnishing some fragile gold heirloom and yesterday her graceful rendition of Rossini’s aria “Di tanti palpiti” held onto my attention long after she’d left the stage. It’s hard to overstate how rare this feeling is at the musical equivalent of a sushi conveyer belt. The American baritone Bryan Murray crossed over in the other direction, from Art Song to Aria, with a poignant “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. But I’ve written about him already.
Wednesday’s discovery was Chinese soprano Xueli Zhou and this is true from both musical and scientific points of view. Supernatural range is one thing, and less rare than you might expect among pros, but to be capable of caressing the sound with such delicacy and precision, at speed, from Mozart to Delibes to Bernstein? It’s incredible for a young singer, though at thirty she’s at the mature end of the competitors. I think she’s actually a fairy acrobat and we should welcome her on planet Earth for as long as she feels like staying. Her “Où va la jeune Hindoue” from Lakmé was exquisite and I won’t be responsible for my actions if Zhou doesn’t make the finals*.
Canadian soprano Sarah Dufresne has promising dramatic instincts and she took the aria category to the 21st century with “Emily’s Goodbye” from Ned Rorem’s Our Town. The American soprano Meredith Wohlgemuth did the same for Art Song with her forthright and pleasantly martial performance of Ian Bell’s “Boudicca”. But it was the discreetly commanding British soprano Harriet Burns who made best use of art song’s variety: she was ripe and at ease in Chausson’s “Dans la forêt du charme et de l’enchantement”, cocky in Hans Pfitzner’s “Ich fürcht’ nit Gespenster”—I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!—and elegant as an assassin’s stiletto knife slicing through a velvet curtain in Schubert’s “Ellens Gesänge”.
In general the Art Song category was stronger than Aria on the second day with memorable moments from Swedish baritone Arvid Fagerfjäll—yummy angst in Schubert’s “Memnon”—and the exciting Finnish soprano Iida Antola’s crepuscular “Totengräbers Heimweh,” Schubert’s emo sleeper hit of 1825.
The semifinalists were announced a few hours later. Here are the results:
June 3, Salle Bourgie
Harriet Burns, soprano (Royaume-Uni | United Kingdom)
Michael Lafferty, baryton | baritone (Royaume-Uni | United Kingdom)
Deepa Johnny, mezzo-soprano (Oman | Canada)
Meredith Wohlgemuth, soprano (États-Unis | United States)
Arvid Fagerfjäll, baryton | baritone (Suède | Sweden)
Bryan Murray, baryton | baritone (États-Unis | United States)
Valérie Eickhoff, mezzo-soprano (Allemagne | Germany)
*She didn’t and neither did the marvellous Jusung Gabriel Park and Seonwoo Lee. Ouch. For us, not for them. They’ll be fine.