Handel Singing Competition 2020

London Handel Festival
Handel Singing Competition: Semi-Final
St George’s, Hanover Square, 6 March 2020

I would normally wait until the final of the annual Handel Singing Competition before mentioning some of those who I heard in the semi-final but, with the Coronavirus cancellation of the entire London Handel Festival, this turns out to be the only review of the festival that I will be writing. The final would have been this evening, 24 March, so it seems an appropriate time to post this review of the semi-final. The reason I try to attend semi-finals of competitions like this is that I frequently hear people who, in my view, should have got through to the final but, for reasons best known to the judges, don’t make it. The London Handel Festival’s annual Handel Singing Competition is no exception to this situation.

As in previous years, this year’s competition comprised of a preliminary round which judged recorded submissions from a record number of 187 applications from 32 countries aged between 23 and 34. This was followed by an initial round in early February of around 90 recorded and live performances heard without an audience.  The semi-final had 12 singers, each singing two arias (with their recitatives) accompanied by a harpsichord. The Final which would have included 5 singers together with the London Handel Orchestra directed by Laurence Cummings. These two rounds are held in public in Handel’s own church of St George’s, Hanover Square.

The winners and several of the finalists of each competition form the mainstay of the London Handel Festival’s future concert programmes for many years to come, so the choice of the judges is critical to the musical success and reputation of future festivals. Not surprisingly, all the music has to be by Handel, so the job of the judges would appear to be to select the finest singers of Handel, which may, or may not be, the best overall singers of a wider repertoire.

The selected semi-finalists this year were four sopranos, one mezzo, two countertenors, two tenors, two baritones and a bass-baritone. The semi-final started with Polish soprano Joanna Radziszewska-Sojka who studied in Bremen. She sang a nicely contrasted programme of Farewell ye limpid springs from Jephtha and Il primo ardor from Ariodante, singing with a clear voice and a very good English accent. It was nice to have a quiet opening. British baritone Jerome Knox followed, engaging well with the audience in his performance of Tu sei il cor di questo core from Giulio Cesare and Revenge, Timotheus cries from Alexander’s Feast. Although his vibrato was an interference, his ability to get into role served him well, particularly in the Behold a ghastly band section of Revenge. 

Following film studies in China, countertenor Meili Li studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall. He describes himself as “the first and only Chinese countertenor to have an international career”. He brought a strong voice and a sense of drama to Stille amare from Tolomeo and Destructive war from Belshazzar. Soprano Madison Nonoa (a Guildhall graduate) demonstrated a clear and focussed voice, clean articulation of runs, and good control of her natural vibrato in O sleep, why dost thou leave me (Semele) and Scherza in mar la navicella (Lotario), making good eye contact with the audience.

After initial musical studies in Japan, tenor Akinobu Ono continued at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. He was one of the few singers who used stylistic ornamentation and minimal vibrato in his performance of War, he sung, is toil and trouble (Alexander’s Feat) and the lyrical Un momento di contento from Alcina. The Swiss-Australian-Filipino countertenor Justin Schütz was born in Japan and studied in New Orleans and Amsterdam. His well-contrasted selection of pieces was the gentle O sacred oracles of truth from Belshazzar and the dramatic Venti, turbini from Rinaldo. His very modest vibrato helped with the clarity of the musical line.

British soprano Jessica Cale is currently in advanced studies at the Royal College of Music. She gave a very impressive performance of È gelosia quella tiranna from Serse and  Guardian angels, O protect me from The Triumph of Time and Truth, making good eye contact with the audience and showing acting skill in the more dramatic moments. She was also one of the few singers who managed a proper trill, without resorting to her admirably light vibrato. Australian baritone Morgan Pearse has, according to his biography “already been recognised as one of the most talented and versatile baritones of his generation”. He sang Sarò giusto from Tolomeo and Revenge, Timotheus cries from Alexander’s Feast. Both are powerful pieces which Pearse used to demonstrate the sheer power of his voice, despite the relatively small space of St George’s, Hanover Square. He had an agile voice with controllable vibrato and the strong stage presence.

Soprano Milly Forrest studied at both the London Royal conservatories. She was the only competitor to introduce her pieces, and went on to demonstrate an impressive acting ability as she sang Myself I shall adore (Semele) and Care solve (Atalanta). The agility of her voice and her effective use of ornaments matched Handel’s music and the performing style of his period well. British tenor Ruari Bowen followed. with Pastorello d’un povero armento from Rodelinda and War, he sang, is told and trouble from Alexander’s Feast. A powerful but sensitive singer, he demonstrated good acting ability and very effective contact with the audience alongside a fine voice, helped by minimal vibrato.

The final two performances started with mezzo-soprano Elspeth Marrow from London. her choice of repertoire was Mi lusinga il dolce affetto from Alcina together with the powerful and dramatic Where shall I fly? from Hercules. Making good contact with the audience, her singing, unfortunately, suffered from too much vibrato, a problem sadly common to many of the semi-final competitors. Bass-baritone John Lee was another singer who didn’t quite manage to control his vibrato but demonstrated a strong and agile voice in Prende il ben dell’ universe (Apollo e Dafne) and Thy glorious deeds (Samson).

As is so often the case with these annual Handel singing competitions, questions of period style and performance practice were an issue for many of the singers selected for the semi-final.  Fine as they might be in the wider vocal and operatic repertoire, this is a specific Handel singing competition. I would have hoped that rather more singers who could control their vibrato had got through to the semi-final. This is not really the fault of the singers, but of their teachers in the conservatories who, it seems to me, push their students into the bigger operatic roles far too early in their musical careers, at a stage when they are not really experienced enough to know how to control a large voice. It also reflects on the view of the judges as to what is an appropriate Handelian vocal style.

The use of appropriate ornamentation, or, indeed, any ornamentation at all, is something else that does not seem to be a key part of the judges’ decision making. Very few singers really demonstrated the well-attested practice of applying ornaments, particularly in the da capo sections of arias.

Finally, a couple of presentation issues. A number of singers aimed their voices and eyes straight down the central aisle, avoiding eye contact and engagement with the audience. Several missed the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to act, within the acceptable confines of a concert performance. These are all operatic arias, and I assume most would want to perform them in an opera context. So indicating that you can bring a personal characterisation of the various roles should have been pretty essential.

The judges for the preliminary rounds were Ian Partridge, Catherine Denley, and Michael George, with Mhairi Lawson and Christian Curnyn joining them for the semi-final. They selected the following singers to go through to the (now non-existent) final:

Ruairi Bowen
Jessica Cale
Jerome Knox
Meili Li 
Morgan Pearse

Had I been reviewing the final instead of the semi-final, I would have made a special mention of Milly Forrest and Madison Nonoa for their performance in the semi-final, adding an expression of surprise that they didn’t get through to the final.

The harpsichord players for the evening were Marta López, Nathaniel Mander, Asako Ogawa and Nicholas Parle, all very supportive in their playing.