MONTRÉAL — For opera fans following the Concours musical international de Montréal (CMIM) vocal competition, crunch time is fast approaching! Last night, six candidates gave their all. These hopefuls, together with the six who strutted their stuff the evening prior, were competing for a coveted spot on the Aria Finals.
Each contestant sang approximately twenty minutes, usually three arias, depending on length. The first to sing was Korean tenor Konstantin Lee, who contributed “Spirto gentil” from La favorita, “Che gelida manina” from La boheme, and “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Werther. Diminutive in size except when it comes to his voice, complete with the requisite “money notes,” those Bs, Cs and beyond needed for a great career. Tonight, he had his top guns blazing. He opened with the Donizetti, singing with a robust, Italianate sound, showing off his high register. Short and sweet, “Spirto gentil” was a nice warm-up for him, followed by a well-sung “Che gelida manina,” with a high C that wasn’t the richest but true. To my ears, his best work of the evening was the Werther aria. His voice, while engaging, has a slightly pushed quality to its delivery; his expressions, while vivid and engaging, tend to be rather generalized. That said, as a last- minute replacement due to a withdrawal, he did exceedingly well.
Next up was Czech tenor Petr Nekoranec. A high tenor in the Juan Diego Florez mode, his singing in “Un aura amorosa” from Cosi was a complete delight. The sound is sweet, ringing, bright, clear, even up and down the scale, with a tinge of nasality. There is a fast vibrato, but well calibrated and not in the least obtrusive. This was followed by the other aria from La fille du regiment. He had sung the one with the nine high Cs brilliantly in the First Round. Now he offered “Pour me rapprocher de Marie, je m’enrolai,” every bit as thrillingly sung. He finished with “Si, ritorvarla io giuro” from La cenerentola. His singing here was brilliant, with every last one of the dizzying roulades in place. This is a tenor to watch.
American baritone John Brancy is one of two singers doing double-duty in CMIM. He already made it to the finals of the Song division. Tonight, he opened with “Es ist genug” from Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. To my ears, his warm, expressive baritone is at its best in this repertoire, in the more cantabile and reflective pieces, and he has chosen wisely this evening. It was followed by Onegin’s short Act 3 aria, sung with ringing tone and dramatic urgency. Billy Budd’s monologue was next, an internalized, evocative and atmospheric piece. I don’t know if Brancy has sung this onstage, but he is a natural Billy, given his heartfelt expression and plaintive tone. He concluded with the drinking song from Thomas’s Hamlet, with the requisite vocal and dramatic swagger.
Canadian mezzo Rihab Chaieb sang “O rest in the Lord” from Elijah with refulgent tone and a dark-hued mezzo. Her instrument has developed by leaps and bounds since her time at the COC Ensemble, with greater solidity at both ends of her range. Her Composer’s Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos was lovely, offering all the ecstasy and expressiveness one would want, albeit a tiny bit of pushing at the top notwithstanding. Her best work of the evening was Charlotte’s passionate outcry, “Werther! Qui m’aurait dit la place.” It was intense, deeply moving, and heart-breaking, a highlight of this competition and arguably the best I have heard from this excellent mezzo.
She was followed by Korean tenor Mario Bahg, who changed the order of presentation of the arias in the program. He started with “Je crois entendre encore” from Pearl Fishers, with the recitative added on. His lyric tenor is warm and engaging, with refined technique and control. His Bizet was sung with beautiful tone, including the interpolated high ending in a honeyed falsetto. Some would say it was more of a voix mixte – arguably more desirable – you can decide for yourself from the archived live stream. His Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana was delivered with gorgeous tone, and he sang the interpolated high B at the end. He final piece was “Cujus animam” from Rossini’s Stabat Mater, a technically treacherous piece requiring a brilliant top. Mario Bahg was totally up to the task. He attacked and held onto the final C-sharp thrillingly, but perhaps a tad too long as when he came down, the voice had a slight crack, the only one among all the contestants. No wonder people say singing tenor is a high-wire act! Dramatically, I must say Bahg is of the “stand and sing” variety, with little acting and just the most generalized expression. But when you have a voice as terrific as his, perhaps it’s enough to satisfy the tenor aficionados?
The last contestant was Russian bass Mikhail Golovushkin, who opened with Gremin’s aria from Onegin. Tall, handsome and distinguished, Golovushkin has the proper gravitas for these bass roles. He sang it beautifully, with a sonorous bass, his acting a bit reserved, rightly so given the character. He followed it with “Infelice! E tuo credevi” from Ernani, which he sang very well. His best work of the evening was as Mefisto in “Vous qui faites l’endormie” from Faust. Here he let himself go and gave a series of hall-filling, demonic laughs, which of course the audience thought was very funny, ending the competition on a high note.
After about a half an hour wait, the jury panel reached its decision. The six finalists are:
Mario Bahg, tenor (South Korea)
John Brancy, baritone (USA)
Emily D’Angelo, mezzo (Canada)
Mikhail Golovushkin (Russia)
Andrew Haji, tenor (Canada)
Konstantin Lee, tenor (South Korea)