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Glyndebourne Opera Cup - a view from inside | reviews, news & interviews

Glyndebourne Opera Cup - a view from inside

Glyndebourne Opera Cup - a view from inside

A Mozartian challenge pulls its weight at prestigious new forum for young singers

Winner Samantha Hankey and honorary president Dame Janet BakerAll images by Richard Hubert Smith

I was on a panel of six critics convened to choose the winner of a special "media award" at the Glyndebourne Opera Cup on Saturday evening. What follows is therefore not a review, but rather a chance to chew over the concept and its highs (and occasional lows). And you may be intrigued to hear that our panel and the main jury picked the exact same top three winners.

From its first season in 1934, Glyndebourne has been inextricably associated with the music of Mozart. As every edition of its new contest is supposed to be devoted to just one composer, Wolfgang Amadeus was the natural choice for the inaugural event.

Mozart suits young voices, as the competition’s founder, ex-Glyndebourne CEO Sebastian Schwarz, pointed out (all the finalists were aged 21-28). But also, as any professional musician will tell you, his music is the ultimate challenge. There’s nowhere to hide. His writing is so streamlined, precise and exposed that if performers are able to draw out its subtle shadings of meaning, with gorgeous tone and sincere emotional expression, you know about it fast. And if they don’t, you know about that too. It’s magic hidden in a minefield.

A major issue, though, is that Mozart tends to provide better arias for women than for men. The all-female winners were perhaps partly the result of that inherent issue; and the male finalists did not on the whole choose the more affecting pieces. Canny programming in competition circumstances is crucial, because the judges can only assess what they hear. If a contestant picks arias that are too similar, or not wholly in the right range, or ones that do not include high notes or coloratura display, that singer could be disadvantaged alongside someone whose choices show off more of what he or she can do. Glyndebourne Cup finalistsAn enthusiastic public turned up with full-blown picnics, despite the leafless chill; in the gardens, primroses and daffodils were struggling into bloom beside the lake and coffee urns took pride of place in the foyer. On stage, Dame Janet Baker, the competition's honorary president, offered wise words to finalists (pictured above) and audience alike on the extraordinary demands of an operatic career. And Chris Addison proved an astute presenter, going off-piste a few times to remind us that when filling in the Audience Prize voting card we should please use block capitals because many doctors were present…

Still, there were lessons to be learned. One was possibly the involvement of a stage director. The staging, such as it was, at times seemed an unwelcome distraction. Instead of pacing back and forth and doing sudden turnarounds, or in Leporello’s case talking to an empty chair, perhaps the contestants could stay still and step into their roles purely with voice and initiative. Even more distracting was some frankly shoddy playing from what purported to be the OAE, even though at the self-same hour that orchestra was busy performing the Bach St Matthew Passion in Paris. Conductor James Gaffigan did what he could with what one must surmise was a "B team". Plaudits, though, to a very fine clarinettist for Sesto’s aria "Parto, parto" from La clemenza di Tito.

And it was with Sesto that the 25-year-old American mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey scooped not only our media award, but also the first prize of the main jury. Of all the singers, she seemed the most polished, golden of tone and convincing in inhabiting the complex worlds of her chosen arias. She navigated "Parto" with poise and subtlety, owning the character and coordinating with the clarinet as if effortlessly; and she drew us in also to a splendidly accomplished account of "Va pure ad altri in braccio" from La finta giardiniera. She has a natural charisma, centring on the voice itself; though some of the other singers sported in-yer-face personalities, Hankey maintained grace and elegance, allowing her unfailing musicality to shine through.

Speaking of in-yer-face personalities, second prize went to Jacquelyn Stucker, also from the USA and currently a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, who combined razzle-dazzle extroversion (and killer heels) with a distinctively individual silvery tone and magnificent control in Aspasia’s "Al destin" from Mitridate, though personally I found her account of Susanna’s "Deh vieni" a tad too vampish.

Third prize went to a very special soprano: originally from Kosovo, Elbenita Kajtazi, 26, was a child during the Kosovan war (pictured below with Dame Janet Baker). Her arias – again, "Deh vieni" (direct and touching) and "Traurigkeit" from Die Entführung aus dem Serail – were delivered with a bright, rich tone, straight from the heart, though some low notes in "Deh vieni" were slightly out of range. She was the overwhelming victor for the Audience Prize. Elbenita Kajtazi and Dame Janet BakerThe award for "most promising talent" went to the youngest contestant, 21-year-old Emily Pogorelc (USA): a petite young woman with a massive, ear-busting soprano voice. She needs more honing – in the media panel we felt the tone was still a bit raw – and, rather crucially, that voice is simply too big to be convincingly Mozartian. But she’s one to watch, for sure. If Glyndebourne had had chandeliers, they would have trembled.

Although the ten finalists did not always seem a cavalcade of megastars in the making, everyone offered something distinctive. Polish baritone Hubert Zapiór possesses an appealing tone, but his repertoire (the Count’s aria from Figaro and Papageno’s "suicide" from DieZauberflöte) did not give it enough chance to shine. Francesca Chiejina (USA), a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, has a beautiful voice, but seemed a bit insecure, perhaps affected by nerves. Eléonore Pacrazi (France) possibly acted too much as Cherubino for "Voi che sapete" – starting tensed up with hunched shoulders was never going to be ideal – but she warmed up to a reasonably pleasing Sesto. Tenor Charles Sy (Canada) offered musicality but little contrast in "Ich baue ganz" from Entführung and "Tradito, schernito" from Così fan tutte. The hirsute Cody Quattlebaum (USA) presented Leporello’s Catalogue Aria and Don Giovanni’s Serenade with beautiful phrasing and impressive, if slightly reserved tone. And one singer I would love to hear again was the sole UK contestant, soprano Gemma Summerfield, whose "Porgi amor" from Figaro was genuinely moving. 

So, if not a wholly unqualified success, the Glyndebourne Opera Cup is certainly off to a flying start. The final is screened on Sky Arts and on demand at Medici TV, where you can see whether you agree with our choice.



The final is not on demand at Medici TV in the UK, so if you don't have access to Sky Arts, you will not be able to see whether you agree with the panel's choice. I would just like to add that I found Charles Sy's tenor exceptionally pleasing in Mozart. Some of the most simply beautiful Mozartian tenor singing.

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