The biannual opera competition in Clairmont-Ferrand, France has been a curiosity of mine for a while, as I’ve received their newsletters for years. I had planned to participate this year when I learned the competition had no age limit this time and they were casting Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana! Through a series of events I did not get my application in on time but knew some people who were taking part. And so I attended and witnessed what I thought would be a relatively fair competition to cast two difficult operas. And knowing at least one past winner of quality, I assumed the best. I was sorely disappointed!
Before I delve into the unsubtle, overtly rigged nature of this competition, I should make a few necessary caveats! 1) The two Korean baritones and the French/Polish mezzo who won prizes or were cast in the operas deserved their wins. Those three sang and acted consistently well throughout the week! 2) It is normal to expect the host country of a competition to favor local participants—but to a point! 3) There were excellent French singers that were ignored and dismissed in early rounds.
The first, noticeable clue that something was wrong is that the level of the singers that made it past the video round was depressingly low! There were on the one hand some excellent singers, but by and large, the elimination round included a large number of singers that simply should not be singing in an international competition, neither vocally nor musically! Although I can imagine that many candidates might apply because there was no age restriction, I was surprised that so many that made it through the live rounds were so ill prepared. I also read the list of the 199 invited to the live rounds and knew several excellent singers who did not come. Of the 122 singers that participated in the drawing of lots for the competitions order, in the end 118 sang. I surmised that many that were invited must have heard through social media that this competition like so many so-called international competitions was already decided before it started!
By the pictures posted on their Facebook page, one did not have to guess who the finalists would be. Along with the Korean baritones and tenors who represented the only men with voices capable of the dramatic roles (and none of them were featured in photos of the semi-finals), were four out of the five French singers who would ultimately win. Two light-voiced French tenors who struggled extremely through the Bohème and Traviata (cavatina only) arias won prizes and cast as Beppe. Yet really excellent candidates for Beppe, including a Korean who exhibited the best tenor voice in the competition, a memorable Egyptian tenor and several other viable Beppes were eliminated in the first live round. Obviously an audience might rebel if those winners were chosen instead of obviously better singers. Instead they faced opponents with obvious flaws if overall better voices. Same can be said of the sopranos, both French. There were several thrilling sopranos in the semifinal rounds including a rock solid Italian and an Argentinian soprano who, with her unique artistry, made time stop! Not once but twice!
The Canadian tenor, the only remaining voice worthy of Canio was given a prize but not the role. If not for the role then, his Korean opponents should have won! They were vocally far better and they acted well too. But perhaps, having a French last name is an advantage here, which might have paradoxically disqualified the excellent Belgian soprano whose name looked decisively German and the excellent German soprano who sang the most consistently well the entire competition! With my French name, maybe I should have sent my materials on time! lol
There is opinion! And one might take my words here as simply that! But when 6 out of 9 winners of a French competition are French or French named (with two Koreans and a Russian), either of two possibilities come to mind for those who witnessed this fiasco: 1) The French sang well and the foreigners not much better. Naturally the French will support theirs. Understandable! Or 2) The French winners by and large sang poorly (with the exception of said mezzo), but the competition had already pre-conceived them as winners and as often in these situations, eliminated viable competitors in early rounds when the public’s ear is too full of noise to remember who sang well and who did not!
In my opinion, we are dealing with the latter! A despicable practice that may be designed, with state money, to further the profile of French classical singing, very poorly represented, at least on the male side. This does not take into account the extreme effort and sacrifices made by singers to take part in these things. Furthermore it does the opposite of its aim. It confirmed that French singers cannot compete successfully in international competitions and so a rigged competition in France must be erected to give an illusion of French competitiveness. So depressing for a country responsible in large part for many of the greatest developments in Bel Canto, including such immortals as Pauline Viardot and her brother, Manuel Garcia, Fils and the legendary basso cantante Louis Lablache. From George’s Thill to Escalais to Crespin and , France has always had some great singers on the international stage. Ludovic Tézier continues to exhibit justifiably laudable vocal artistry, not to mention the persistence of Alagna. This competition dishonors honest French achievement and attempts to elevate mediocrity (our mezzo aside). Shameful!
I don’t mention the singers by name because I know how difficult vocal development is! I’m sure these winners tried their best! The competition however should be ashamed as should Inva Mula, the celebrated soprano who presided over the jury, for giving this travesty a stamp of approval!
© 5 March 2019