Nadine Koutcher claiming the BBC Cardiff Singer crown © Brian Tarr
Nadine Koutcher claiming the BBC Cardiff Singer crown
© Brian Tarr
Cardiff Castle hosted an entertaining bout of medieval jousting yesterday afternoon, but in the evening all eyes and ears turned to the vocal jousting in St David’s Hall. The BBC Cardiff Singer of the World had reached its Grand Final, five singers battling it out for the main prize. None of our riders was unseated in displays never less than creditable, yet did the judges reach the right conclusion? In awarding the laurels to Belarusian soprano Nadine Koutcher, rather than audience favourite Amartushvin Enkhbat, I don’t believe they did.

Let’s be absolutely clear. Mongolian baritone Amartushvin Enkhbat was the most phenomenal voice of the evening. Indeed, I cannot recall another participant in Cardiff Singer history whose voice has thrilled so much. His baritone has a very dark, velvety plush quality, with a solid, even core across his entire range. In the hall, the voice is every bit as penetrating as I’d anticipated from television coverage. In the prologue to Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Enkhbat demonstrated dynamic variation, plus smooth legato and expansive phrasing in Wolfram’s “Hymn to the Evening Star”. Renato’s “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera was simply wonderful – a wash of rich tone flooding the auditorium. Here is the Verdi baritone we’ve been pining for! Yet dramatically, Enkhbat is a blank canvas. Watching him, you’d not have the faintest idea what he was singing about. Is it enough to possess a glorious voice? The judges thought not, although the man known all week as Mr Mongolia deservedly walked away with the Audience Prize.

Amartuvshin Enkhbat © Brian Tarr
Amartuvshin Enkhbat
© Brian Tarr
Those elements lacking in Enkhbat’s performance style were highlighted within a minute of Lauren Michelle’s programme. She immediately engaged the audience, slowly making eye contact along the stalls, then staring up to the various tiers of St David’s Hall. Add a hint of a sob and an appreciative acknowledgement of the orchestra’s contribution and you have a much more savvy contestant. However, Michelle’s performance struck me as too cool and calculated. Her bright soprano lacks the cream for Korngold’s “Marietta Lied” and she suffered a few intonation issues, although her Elettra from Idomeneo was fiery.

It was a pity that Ukrainian tenor Olekisy Palchykov didn’t choose any Russian repertoire, as his Lensky was a highlight of Round 1. Instead, he opened with an aria from Die Entführung, his pinched, nasal tone confirming, for me, that he is not an ideal Mozart tenor. Neither is he well suited to bel canto, pushing too hard in the obligatory “Una furtiva lagrima”. His Léhar was much more impressive, despite suspect German diction, winning the audience love in an ardent “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”.

The dark horse of the evening was Jongmin Park, the “wild card” chosen by the judges to join the winners of the four heats. After an odd opening choice extracted from Verdi’s Requiem, the South Korean bass impressed with a silky, slippery “La calunnia” which engaged the audience with Don Basilio’s devious machinations. Park has a warm basso cantante and I’d be very happy hearing him in any number of roles.

From left: Jongmin Park, Nadine Koutcher, Amartuvshin Enkhbat © Brian Tarr
From left: Jongmin Park, Nadine Koutcher, Amartuvshin Enkhbat
© Brian Tarr

So how did the judges arrive at their verdict to award the main prize to Nadine Koutcher? The Belarusian certainly generated a lot of excitement in the hall. She tackles a lot of coloratura soprano repertoire – Olympia’s Doll Song from The Tales of Hoffmann in her heat and Lakmé’s Bell Song in the final – yet she’s no canary, having a much fuller soprano (as did Joan Sutherland). The articulation in Lakmé was fast and clean, but intonation (a final E that was distinctly flat) was an issue. Her coloratura threatened to go off the rails in Konstanze’s “Ach, ich liebte” from Entführung. To my mind, Koutcher won through her performance of Marfa’s aria from The Tsar’s Bride. It was clearly the dramatic performance of the evening, full of bell-like tone and poise, allied to sensitive acting that drew in her audience.

Koutcher is undoubtedly more ‘oven ready’ for stepping onto the world’s finest operatic stages than some of the other finalists – the competition is called Cardiff Singer rather than Cardiff Voice, after all. Yet in opting for a compromise candidate, I can’t help feeling that the judges have done a great disservice to a great voice.