The Solti Accademia Di Bel Canto is a three-week summer school that takes place annually in Castiglione, where a few lucky singers can enjoy intensive coaching with artistic director Jonathan Papp and stars of the opera stage, who have included Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Mirella Freni (pictured) and Leo Nucci. This concert was to serve as a London showcase for ten of the singers who have taken part in recent years, although in the event only nine were able to perform, as the promising young Romanian soprano Eliana Pretorian, who excelled as Zerlina in British Youth Opera's 2006 Don Giovanni, unfortunately had a cold.
The concert got off to an arresting start with Swedish mezzo Matilda Paulsson who performed Romeo's 'Se Romeo t'uccise un figlio' from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. She looked sensational and sounded even better, pouring out a free and flexible voice of gleaming, rich tone that had enough bite in it to suggest she may make a thrilling Princess Eboli in the fullness of time. Her line was excellent in the cavatina, and her coloratura accurate and passionate in the cabaletta – all the primary elements of bel canto were in evidence.
Paulsson was followed by the Japanese soprano Mihoko Kinoshita (pictured) who performed 'Un bel di vedremo' from Puccini's Madama Butterfly with moving tenderness and great power. Kinoshita's voice is extremely beautiful but also very large which may have made it difficult to dominate during her training. This may account for a slight sense of caution in her singing. Just occasionally, phrases ended a little abruptly, and she breathed in places where one is used to hearing the line sung through. Equally, however, this could be explained by the situation she was in – it cannot be easy to launch into a difficult aria from nothing, with only a piano, knowing the audience is comprised largely of agents and others from the classical music industry. Certainly, this tendency was much reduced when she appeared in the second half with Lithuanian mezzo Jurgita Adamonytė to sing the duet 'Mira, o Norma' from Bellini's Norma, which was the highlight of the evening for me. Both singers appeared unphased by the difficulty of the music, and not only sung their roles excellently and beautifully, but duetted with great sensitivity. The rising staccato scales in thirds were perfectly coordinated and lent a fantastic sense of polish to the performance.
Adamonytė's solo selection was, slightly perplexingly, the Tosti song 'Ridonami la calma'. For the majority of the piece, she held back a great deal, creating a very even but rather tense line. When she did let rip at the song's climax, she revealed a voice of great size and colour, but the transition was unfortunately not well managed and the timbre turned metallic and buckled slightly. In bigger repertoire where she feels less inhibited, as evidenced by her Adalgisa, she is far more convincing.
We had more Tosti from the Korean baritone Seung Wook Seong who gave us the song 'Ideale'. Here was genuine intimacy, with his lovely voice honed down to a beautifully spun thread, although as with Kinoshita, there was something very careful about his singing that slightly got between him and the audience, impressive though he is. His second piece was the death of Posa from Verdi's Don Carlos, and although this was also excellently sung, there was still a little too much emphasis on doing it correctly and not enough on Italianate operatic passion. I felt that the piece was about as big as Seong ought ever to attempt with his fundamentally lyric instrument, and this may explain his reticence with it.
There was a massive contrast with Dong Jun Wang, a Chinese baritone, who romped through 'Largo al factotum' from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. He packed the piece with lots of character, and although I found the vocal delivery a little shouty, he did demonstrate great flexibility and an ability to rein it in at key moments, proving that his technical arsenal is pretty comprehensive, and he won the biggest ovation of the evening.
Ana James was probably the artist on the programme most familiar to London audiences, through her excellent work on the young artists' programme at the Royal Opera. She gave a highly accomplished performance of Gilda's 'Caro nome' from Verdi's Rigoletto, and it was great to hear her substantial, beautiful voice in full flight for once, after so many evenings where she has had short lines here and there to deliver at Covent Garden. However, it was also disappointing to hear that the musical preparation was not as thorough as it could have been. The rests in the vocal line, such a crucial part of the expression, were not properly observed, and as with others in the concert, there was a lack of engagement with the text. James has the kind of technique that makes one imagine she could do anything she wanted with her voice, so it was all the more frustrating that her musicianship did not shine through in her interpretation. (Read our recent interview with Ana James here.)
Sharing the concert with these six excellent singers were three tenors who were simply not in the same league. The Icelandic Jonas Gudmundsson and the Mexican Jesus Leon both have significant unresolved technical issues that meant they were not able to deliver sufficiently pleasing accounts of their selections, from Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri and Il barbiere di Siviglia respectively. Taking part in the Barbiere excerpt, with Leon and Paulsson, was English tenor Simon Wallfisch who was playing Figaro. It is a mystery why this role was given to Wallfisch who sounded like he, too, would be a future Almaviva, with nothing baritonal about his timbre at all, particularly given the presence of Wang who had just sung another excerpt from the role. If the intention was to give Wallfisch a chance to perform, why not programme a piece that played to his strengths rather than point out his weaknesses with a piece too low and too heavy for him?
The concert was rather dichotomous then, but with such excellent singing from all the women and both baritones, it was a very enjoyable evening. I will certainly look out for future events associated with the Solti Accademia Di Bel Canto, and I hope to hear a great deal more of Kinoshita and Paulsson in particular.
By John Woods
Read recent concert reviews, including Thomas Hampson and Simon Keenlyside's recitals at the Wigmore Hall, here.