The annual Handel Singing Competition, which forms part of London Handel Festival, is unique in that the participants sing only Handel in all the rounds. It was set up in 2002 and many of its prizewinners (Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies, Tim Mead among the early ones) have gone on to become leading singers in Handel and other Baroque repertoire. Interestingly, whereas in the early years, the competition tended to attract mainly early music singers, as it has become more established, it seems to be attracting more mainstream opera singers with fuller voices. That has been my impression in the last few competitions.

Five singers were chosen for the final from the 100+ original applicants: three sopranos, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone. It was a particularly international line-up this year, one singer each from Slovakia, Russia, USA, Spain and the United Kingdom. Each finalist chooses his/her own programme from Handel’s works (18 minutes maximum) and their choice of programming can often be a factor for the jury, led by Ian Partridge. Personally, I listened out for the quality of voice, technique, interpretation, fluency in Baroque style (including ornamentation) and variety of programming.

The first prize was awarded to the Spanish (Catalan) baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé who would also have been my choice of the winner, as well as for the majority of the public since he also received the Audience Prize. He had a warm and resonant voice, good overall musicianship, expressiveness and clarity of text. He showed intelligence in mixing arias from familiar and unfamiliar Handel operas, as well as an air in English from the Dettingen Te Deum. I also liked that he sang the Tamerlano aria with the recitative, displaying his understanding of Baroque operatic style. Perhaps he got a little over-enthusiastic at times and the high notes suffered, but he captured the emotional sentiment of each aria well, and in particular he showed delicacy and style in “Se il mar promette calma” from Lotario, which was for me the most memorable aria of the whole evening.

Russian mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova received second prize. From a wealth of Handelian arias for mezzos, she avoided the obvious showstoppers and opted wisely for two constrasting solos, Iside’s aria “Nel passar da un laccio all’altro” from Giove in Argo, and Giulio Cesare’s charming and light-hearted aria “Se in fiorito” which has a delightful violin obligato solo imitating a twittering bird (playfully performed by Adrian Butterfield). Hers is a dark-toned and rich voice with beautiful control, although perhaps not enough agility for “Se in fiorito”. She was certainly confident in the first aria, exploring the range of sentiments and displaying her top notes in the cadenza. She is an eloquent singer, and I think her voice will eventually lead her beyond Handel.

The three sopranos all had very different voice types and tackled different repertoire. Ingrida Gápová presented a well-balanced programme of three arias that were in turn lively, lyrical and angry. Her ornamentation in the da capo sections was stylish and she showed a beautiful sense of line in Semele’s aria “O sleep, why dost thou leave me”. At times though she lacked precision in her coloratura and tended to push too hard.

I don’t think Sarah Hayashi’s choice of singing a whole cantata, La Lucrezia HWV145, did her any favours. A highly intense work filled despair and turbulent emotions, she threw herself in the drama and gave a committed and moving performance, especially in the concluding arioso vowing revenge. It would have been perfect in a recital programme, but the multiple recitative-aria form with continuo only (with occasional obligato violin) did not bring out her versatility, which I am sure she has. Why not use the orchestra when given the opportunity?

British soprano Alice Privett was the final contestant. She chose Rodelinda’s aria “Morrai, sì” followed by “Date serti” and the Alleluja from the motet Silete venti, Handel’s setting of the Latin text. I would say she was the most accomplished in the Baroque style and she sang with elegance and honesty, but her voice lacked full resonance, and there could have been more clarity in the coloratura in the Alleluja.

Overall, the standard of the singing in this year’s final was very high – even if there wasn’t a standout Handelian voice for me – and Josep-Ramon Olivé was a well-deserved and popular winner.


Read our interview with finalist Maria Ostroukhova