Bathed in glorious sunshine, the picturesque Baltic seaside town of Jūrmala in Latvia played host to the 37th International Hans Gabor Belvdere Singing Competition. After whittling down the 147 competitors to just 16 finalists, the opera jury who are mainly artistic directors of opera houses around the world had the challenging task of electing the most worthy candidate. Inevitably, given the fine calibre of singing on offer tonight there were some crushing disappointments but there was a number of special prizes with concomitant engagements that helped to alleviate some of the other competitors’ pain.

It was South Korean tenor Sungho Kim who took the €7000 first prize and with it a host of engagements. He was also awarded the special prize engagement at the Staatsoper Dresden. The second prize went to the Greek bass Georgios Alexandros Stavrakakis who was also the popular favourite and won the audience prize. The third went to Belarusian tenor Pavel Petrov who in addition garnered the special prize from Lativan National Opera, and the prize from the Media Jury went to Russian tenor Boris Stepanov.

The Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition’s niche is that it is the opera directors, music promoters and the media who judge the competitors rather than singing teachers. It considers itself as a “springboard for a career in opera” and certainly its engagements that follow are very valuable for the lucky few. First prize-winner Sungho Kim’s Ernesto from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale exhibited a fine self-piteous “O povero Ernesto” as he lamented his fate, sadness dripping from every syllable. His voice was agile, his vibrato tight as he sang about seeking a distant land (“Cercherò lontana terra”) but it was vocal power more than beauty than impressed here.

There was a magnetic intensity to the second prize-winner Stavrakakis’ “Ella giammai m’amò” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. King Philip II controls large portions of the world, but he is gnawed by doubt that his much younger wife doesn’t love him. Stavrakakis’ deep, sepulchre voice seemed to envelop the audience in sound as he revealed his character’s touching vulnerability. It was a terrifically compelling performance and a worthy winner of the coveted audience prize.

The sweet heft of the Belarusian tenor Pavel Petrov made its mark in Puccini’s “Che gelida manina” from La Bohème. Blessed with a warm, golden tone and an effortless projection, Petrov as the poet Rodolfo not only touched the heart of Mimi, the young woman who has come to his attic room on Christmas Eve searching for a match to relight her candle, but the audience’s heart as well.

Highly expressive and charming, Russian tenor Boris Stepanov grasped our attention from the opening note with Lensky’s aria “Kuda, kuda vi udalilis” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, sung as he awaits his duel with his erstwhile friend Eugene who flirted with his fiancée. I could have listened to Stepanov’s voice happily for another few hours and in the forte sections his voice opened up expansively. There were some delectable switches between ff and p that he made seem effortless. He richly deserved the Media Jury prize.

There were five others who won special jury prizes which translate into valuable engagements to opera houses around Europe, Russia and South Africa. The German mezzo-soprano Deniz Uzun was the most engaging of them and should, I felt, have captured one of the top prizes. Energetic and coquettish, she flirted her way through Rossini’s “Cruda sorte” from L’italiana in Algeri. And while the tessitura of the part of Isabella is much more suited to a contralto, Uzun proved herself splendidly agile as she dexterously sung the low F as well as the F two octaves higher.

The Russian tenor Andrei Danilov hit a peach of a high C in Offenbach’s “Il était une fois à la cour d'Eisenach” from Les contes d’Hoffmann while the Brazilian soprano Camila Titinger was at her best as she unfurled the delicate tendrils of melody in Mozart’s “E Susanna non vien...Dove sono” from Le Nozze di Figaro. Mexican Jorge Espino possessed a rich voice, as dark and intense as a red wine and South African baritone Martin Mkhize was full of dramatic and exciting potential.

The most surprising absence from any sort of prize was the delectable Australian soprano Emma Moore, something the audience were quick to pick up on too as they gave her an extra-long ovation. Possessed of a voice as pure as liquid gold, she bewitched and charmed in equal measure. Her pianissimos were exquisite and her high notes heavenly. There was never the hint of power at the expense of expression – rather it was the voice of an artist, one whom I long to hear much more of in the future.


Andrew Larkin’s press trip was sponsored by Latvia Concerts.