“Twinkle, twinkle little star” in Japanese sounds odd, and with a different tune too. But its innocence survives translation, and it made a touching centrepiece to Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new Hibiki: an oratorio memorial to the recent Japanese tsunami, premiered last year in Tokyo but receiving its first European performance at the Proms.
Written with sweeping busyness that dutifully subsided into gloom, it had the cinematic glamour many a composer feeds into orchestral scores these days, although not always with such confidence or sense of purpose. And the setting of the nursery rhyme in Japanese was masterful – delivered by two English children’s choirs who had no doubt worked long and hard on their pronunciation.
Easier was the libretto of She Said the ‘F’ Word, a comedy by Daniel Gillingwater that was far and away the best thing I saw at this year’s Tête à Tête festival of new chamber operas. Tête à Tête shows can be worthy and pretentious. This one, though, was riotous, direct and very funny, based around the breakfast-table traumas of a family getting a 10-year-old ready for school. The text was sitcom-sharp, the music clever and the story evidently autobiographical – directed as it was by the composer’s wife, and with their real-life son (a natural) playing himself onstage. Completely brilliant.
Competitions are only as good as the people who win them, and the Queen Sonja Competition in Oslo hasn’t produced as many stars as you’d expect of a prestigious vocal fixture that’s been running for three decades. But the winner last time round was Lise Davidsen, the full-on dramatic soprano whose Ariadne wowed Glyndebourne audiences this summer. And there were big hopes for the finalists of the 2017 competition which I’ve just attended at the Oslo Opera House. No British voice made it through, and standards were reputed to be high.
In the event, they weren’t so dazzling, though. The finalists sang mostly obvious, safe repertoire, and no performance truly stood out – though the first prize went to a Korean tenor, Seungju Bahg, who looked like a sumo wrestler but sang “Una furtiva lagrima’’ with a disarming purity that guaranteed success. He’d have been my choice too had I been on the jury. But he didn’t strike me as a major personality, and I’m not sure he’d bring a role to life onstage.
The winner of the second prize had more potential there: Italian tenor Giovanni Sebastiano Salo, whose unforced vitality and easy elegance had the distinction of a young Alfredo Kraus. Were I running an opera house, I think I’d find him a more useful artist. But that’s maybe not what competitions are about.
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