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Sunday, 25 August 2019

Final of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo

Final of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 - First prize winner, Sergey Kaydalov (Russia) & H.M. Queen Sonja on Norway (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Final of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019
First prize winner, Sergey Kaydalov (Russia) & H.M. Queen Sonja on Norway (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Final of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition; Oslo Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 August 2019
Six young singers from Germany, Poland, Russia, Moldova and China competing in the 30th anniversary edition of the competition

Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 - Stefan Astakhov (Germany), Risto Joost (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019
Stefan Astakhov (Germany), Risto Joost (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
2019 is the 30th anniversary of the Queen Sonja International Music Competition, and this year the biennial event in Oslo, Norway featured over 300 young singers competing. On Friday 23 August 2019, the final involved six singers from Germany, Russia, Poland, China and Moldova, who sang arias and duets at the Oslo Opera House, in front of a distinguished jury from a variety of walks of musical life. The singers were accompanied by the orchestra of Norwegian Opera, conductor Risto Joost, and the event took place in the presence of HM Queen Sonja of Norway, the very active patron of the festival who presented the prizes (amongst which was one of Her Majesty's own prints).

The finalists, all in their 20s and some as young as 21, were German baritone Stefan Astakhov, English-born German tenor Theodore Browne, Russian baritone Sergey Kaydalov, Polish baritone Adam Kutny, Moldovan soprano Natalia Tanasii and Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang, and the judges were Annilese Miskimmon (director of opera at the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet), the Norwegian opera director Stefan Herheim, the soprano Sumi Jo, Tatjana Kandel (head of artistic planning for the DR Ensembles at the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Ensembles in Copenhagen), Robert Korner (director of artistic production at Opera National de Lyon and casting director at Vienna State Opera from 2020), baritone Sergei Leiferkus and Diane Zola (assistant general manager at the Metropolitan Opera, New York).



Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 - Adam Kutny (Poland), Natalia Tanasii (Moldova), Risto Joost (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019
Adam Kutny (Poland), Natalia Tanasii (Moldova), Risto Joost
(Photo Adrian Nielsen)
In the first half, each singer sang an opera aria, and then in the second there was a mixture of duets and arias, the repertoire was the singers' own choice. One of the competition's themes is 'Come as you are' and part of the challenge for the singers is to select repertoire which shows their full range of talents. Whilst all the competitors were impressive indeed, I did think that for some of them there was insufficient contrast between their first and second items, so we did not get an idea of the performer's range.

In the first half, Theodore Browne sang 'Si, ritrovarla io giuro', Don Ramiro's Act 2, scene 1 aria from Rossini's La Cenerentola, Adam Kutny sang Yeletsky's Act 2 aria from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, Meigui Zhang sang 'Amour ranime mon courage' (Poison Aria), Juliette's Act 4 aria from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, Stefan Astakhov sang 'Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray' (Billy in the darbies) from Act 2 of Britten's Billy Budd, Sergey Kaydalov sang 'Eri tu', Renato's Act 2 aria from Verdi's Un ballo in maschera and Natalia Tanasii sang Rusalka's 'Song to the Moon' from Dvorak's opera.

For the second half we had the slightly unusual (for a competition) inclusion of duets, aimed at challenging the singers in other ways though the combination of voices present (three baritones, a lyric tenor and two lyric sopranos) meant that we had two duets and two arias.

Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 - Theodore Browne (Germany), Risto Joost (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019
Theodore Browne (Germany), Risto Joost (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Meigui Zhang and Theodore Browne sang Adina and Nemorino's duet 'Esulti pur la Barbara' from Act 1 of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, and Natalia Tanasii and Adam Kutny sang Mimi and Marcello's Act 3 duet from Puccini's La boheme, Sergey Kaydalov sang Tartaglia's aria 'Quella e un strada' from Pietro Mascagni's 1901 opera Le maschere, and Stefan Astakhov sang Figaro's 'Largo asl factotum' from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. Then all gathered together for an arrangement of the Brindisi from Verdi's La traviata.

In the aria from Rossini's La cenerentola, Theodore Browne showed a lovely sweet lyric voice, with a fine voix mixte and a strong technical facility in this repertoire, though perhaps a little more variety of colour in his voice might be desirable. His engaging stage personality was further highlighted in his delightful comic turn in the Donizetti duet.

In Yeletsky's aria, Adam Kutny impressed with the sheer quality of his voice, his fine sense of line and good attention to the words, though his stage presence was, understandably, a bit stiff. As Marcello in the duet from La Boheme he revealed real musicality, though the big dramatic moment goes to Mimi.

Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 - Meigui Zhang (China)(Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019
Meigui Zhang (China)(Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Meigui Zhang was delightful in Juliette's aria, showing a nice combination of technical ease (with a lovely trill) in the coloratura and a bit of steel too, though her French was somewhat occluded. Whilst as Adina she showed herself able to sparkle in comedy as well.

Stefan Astakhov very bravely sang Billy in the Darbies in English, revealing a fine lyric baritone voice and making this Billy really touching. Astakhov's sung English still needs some work, and I felt this slightly stood between him and us a little, but certainly I would love to Astakhov's Billy again. His Figaro aria in the second half was a complete contrast, starting quite seriously he ended up singing with real abandon.

Sergei Kaydalov was impressive in his Verdi aria, revealing a fine baritone voice which is clearly building towards an impressive Verdi voice, with a fine top, firm bottom and nice evenness. He was highly convincing dramatically too, and his words were communicative though perhaps his vowels were slightly too dark. His comic turn in Mascagni's aria indeed showed his remarkable range, but I had a problem with this repertoire choice as it makes fun of a character who has trouble with a pronounced stammer, and wished he had chosen a different comic aria.

Natalia Tanasii sang Rusalka's Song to the Moon with a lovely simplicity, and a warm-toned lyric voice. She spun a fine, highly engaging line and though she sang in Czech I would have liked more sense of the words. But it was as Mimi that she was able to show her full dramatic range.

Risto Joost and the orchestra opened proceedings with a briskly vivid account of the overture to Bernstein's Candide, something suitably theatrical to get things started. And for each of HM Queen Sonja's entries into the theatre, they gave us a thrilling account of the opening toccata from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. They accompanied the various arias with panache, though given the predominance of young lyric voices I felt that the orchestra was rather too strong in the balance, though none of the young singers pushed their voices thankfully.

By the second interval, when the judges retired to make their verdict, everyone had an opinion as to which singer should be placed where, but all were very well matched and the choice ultimately came down to which particular characteristics of the dramatic art were the most important to you. It is worth bearing in mind, also, that all of the singers and their voices are on a journey which has really only just begun, and this is particularly true of the young baritones some of whom might have 20 years to wait until they finally come into their prime.

Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 -  Astrid Nordstad, Natalia Tanasiiciuc, Sergey Kaydalov, Meigui Zhang, Stefan Astakhov, Adam Kutny and Theodore Browne (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 -  Astrid Nordstad, Natalia Tanasiiciuc, Sergey Kaydalov, Meigui Zhang, Stefan Astakhov, Adam Kutny and Theodore Browne (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
At the prize-giving portion of the event, Queen Sonja was first interviewed by the presenter Mari Lunnan with the Queen effortlessly switching into English when it came to the point when she discussed the creation of the prints which formed part of the prizes.

  • The Ingrid Bjoner Scholarship, awarded to the best Norwegian performance in the competition, went to Astrid Norstad from Trondheim.
  • The lieder prize went to Stefan Astakhov.
  • Third prize went to Adam Kutny.
  • Second prize went to Stefan Astakhov.
  • First prize went to Sergey Kaydalov.
Kaydalov celebrated by giving an engaging repeat performance of his Mascagni aria, all the while clutching delightedly the huge print from Queen Sonja.

Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 - The jury: Tatjana Kandel, Diane Zola, Robert Korner, Stefan Herheim, Sergei Leiferkus, Sumi Jo (Photo Adrian Nielsen)*
Queen Sonja International Music Competition 2019 - The jury:
Tatjana Kandel, Diane Zola, Robert Korner, Stefan Herheim, Sergei Leiferkus, Sumi Jo (Photo Adrian Nielsen)
The next Queen Sonja International Music Competition is in 2021. Previous winners of the competition have included Lise Davidsen (2015), Audun Iversen (2007), Daniel Behle (2005), Virginia Tola (2009) so present and future finalists are well worth keeping an eye on.

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