LHF: Handel Singing Competition

Handel Singing Competition: Semi-Final
London Handel Festival
Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair, 28 March 2018

The annual Handel Singing Competition was founded in 2002 as an integral part of the London Handel Festival (LHF). This year it attracted 116 applicants, seemingly down in numbers from the 150 that the LHF quote as the norm. A private first round was held over several very snowy days around the end of February, although sound files could be submitted by those unable to be there. Eleven of the 116 made it through to this, the public semi-final, held on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Perhaps holding the semi-final of a singing competition during one of the busiest of the year for singers was not the brightest idea – I know of singers that did not enter because they knew they would inevitably be busy that week.

The competition is open to singers between 23 and 33 years old on 1 February 2018. The prizes are first: £5000, second: £2000, audience: £300, finalists: £300. All finalists are guaranteed lunchtime recitals during the 2019 London Handel Festival, and many past finalists are also asked to perform solos in other prestigious concerts during the Festival and abroad. The 2018 London Handel Festival, for example, includes 20 previous finalists.

In order of appearance, the semi-finalists were: Charlotte La Thrope soprano, Kate Howden mezzo-soprano, Sunghoon Choi countertenor, Lauren Lodge-Campbell soprano, Daniel Mullaney tenor, Emma Stannard mezzo-soprano, Dorota Szczepanska soprano, Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano, Jacquelyn Stucker soprano, Ed Ballard baritone, Dagmara Barna soprano. They were accompanied by harpsichord alone (played by Asako Ogawa, Sakoko Doi-Luck, Thomas Allery, and Heather Tomala), although the final will use the London Handel Orchestra, albeit with slightly limited instrumental forces. The adjudicators were Ian Partridge, Catherine Denley, Michael George, and Stephen Pettitt. For the final, the same panel will be chaired by John Mark Ainsley.

One of the reasons I try to review the semi-final is that I have often been impressed with singers that do not manage to get into the final. This year was no exception. I was very impressed with Charlotte La Thrope when I heard her at last years Iford Arts production of Jeptha (reviewed here), when she was part of the Iford Arts New Generation Artists Programme. I described her as “a young singer to watch out for” and also praised her acting ability. She opened with the Jeptha Act III/1 recitative and aria “Rise, Jephtha – Happy, Iphis, Shalt Thou Live”, the sheer joy of the text very evident from her face and general deportment. Her second aria was the anguished Se pietà di me non senti from Giulio Cesare. She fully engaged with the audience, looking directly at them rather than over their heads, or avoiding them altogether by looking down the central aisle, as was the case with many other semi-finalists. She had excellent intonation over wide-ranging melodic lines, sang with clearly articulated runs, ornamented the da capos well, controlled her minimal vibrato – and wore a dress that matched the colour of the harpsichord.

Kate Howden demonstrated a range of musical emotions in her extracts from Ariodante and Hercules, her stage persona aided by simple hand gestures, as was the case by several other singers. Her relatively mild, but persistent vibrato and occasional lifting up onto notes were a bit of an issue for me. Korean countertenor Sunghoon Choi had an alarmingly big vibrato, although it didn’t interfere too much with the articulation of his vocal runs. I don’t know if it was a requirement to sing one English language piece, but all the semi-finalists did so, to the detriment of those whose first language was of very different origin.

Lauren Lodge-Campbell is a member of the 2018 Iford Arts New Generation Artists Programme. She opened with the dramatic Combattuta da due venti from Faramondo followed by ‘O though bright sun . . . With darkness deep’ from Theodora with its gorgeous little seven-note accompaniment motif. She had a compelling stage presence and an impressively powerful voice, helped no doubt by being a rarity amongst singers in actually opening her mouth properly. Intonation, articulation and control of vibrato were all excellent.

Tenor Daniel Mullaney had a strong and attractive tone, ranging from the dramatic in the opening recitative Fatto inferno to the gentle following aria Pastorello d’un povero armento (from Rodelinda). I had previously reviewed Emma Stannard as Poppea and Minerva in Monteverdi (here). On this occasion, she was a wide-eyed story-teller of the frogs, blotches and blaines from Isreal in Egypt, aided by her simple hand actions. Her expressive and light voice had a nice tone although, for my taste, there were some issues of vibrato and a slight portamento. Those issues were more prominent with Dorota Szczepanska although she expressed the flirty silliness of Semele’s ‘Myself I shall adore’ well, and followed this with a rare example of a Handel aria in German, Der Himmel wird straffen dein falsches Gemüht from his first opera, Almire.

Helen Charlston is another singer I have been impressed with on several occasions (some reviews here). She opened with In gentle murmers from Jeptha, followed by Furibondo spire il vento from Partenope. She has a powerful and expressive voice, clear articulation of runs, appropriate use of ornaments, control of her natural vibrato and a good stage presence. Her mezzo voice is clear at the top, and solid in the lower register. I liked the way she shaded the cadential flourish in Furibondo. Jacquelyn Stucker is an experienced opera singer, currently a young artist at the Royal Opera House. She sang Ah, crudel, from Rinaldo and O that I on wings could rise from Theodora. Of all the semi-finalists, she had the most dramatic presence. She sang very expressively, showing good control of runs and articulation, although her vibrato was a little strong for my taste.

Ed Ballard followed, with False destructive ways of Pleasure from The Triumph of Time and Truth, and Per pietà de’ meie martiri from Cuopre tal volta il cielo. His voice was eloquent and expressive and he made good contact with the audience, but a persistent and uncontrolled vibrato caused me concern. The final singer was Dagmara Barna, opening with an impressive Di Re sdegnato from Giustino. She had a clear and expressive tone, good English, and a good sense of the drama in the music but was another singer where vibrato was an issue for me.

The following singers progressed through to the competition final on Tuesday 10 April at St George’s, Hanover Square, accompanied by the London Handel Orchestra. Details here.

Ed

Ballard, baritone
Helen Charlston, mezzo-soprano
Lauren Lodge-Campbell, soprano
Daniel Mullaney, tenor
Emma Stannard, mezzo-soprano
Jacquelyn Stucker, soprano

PS. The winners of the Handel Singing Competition were Helen Charlston first prize, and Lauren Lodge-Campbell second and audience prizes.

One of the issues with the Handel Singing Competition is that it is spaced out over two months, making it tricky for potential competitors who are not based in the UK. As far as I could tell, only three of the 11 semi-finalists were not currently based in London. There is a danger that it could be seen as a rather parochial event. Another issue that I have raised in several earlier reviews is the question of whether the judges (who have been more-or-less the same for many years) are really seeking out the best singers of Handel, as opposed to a much later repertoire. For example, one past winner is now known for singing Wagner! It is perhaps telling that several of best-known previous finalists, and Handel singers, were not first prize winners. As the LHF invites finalists back to sing in later festivals the choice of the judges affects the performance style of the festival for years to come. As a specialist Handel festival, with a specialist Handel singing competition, there should perhaps be more focus on the stylistically appropriate singing of the repertoire of Handel’s own period when, arguably, issues such as portamento and strong uncontrolled vibrato was not appreciated.
To that end, I leave you with this –
Baroque owl.jpg

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