Operalia is a curious beast among voice competitions. The heats take place behind closed doors – in this year’s case, deep in the bowels of the Royal Opera House’s very own Nibelheim, otherwise known as the Linbury Studio – whittling down 40 singers to just eleven. Eleven singers for a final? That’s still rather a large field. In order to whip through all the finalists in two hours, each singer is given just a single bite at the cherry – one aria to sell their wares, unless they’ve pitched for the zarzuela prize too. There’s no opportunity to build a programme to show ability in different repertoire, no chance to demonstrate proficiency in different languages. Step onto the stage, belt out your aria and, before you’ve barely had time to acknowledge the applause, the next contestant shuffles along the conveyor belt. A one-shot saloon. It’s an oddly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Yet there’s no doubting the competition’s prestige. A trawl through the list of previous winners – or a spin through the promotional video – reveals a truly impressive roster of singers. Nina Stemme, Joyce DiDonato, Rolando Villazón, Erwin Schrott and Sonya Yoncheva have all walked away with prizes and gone on to stellar careers. 2013 winner Aida Garifullina has a debut album imminent. Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat, who so impressed during the BBC Cardiff Singer competition last month, was a winner in 2012, though I would wager that the exposure he’s gained due to television coverage in Wales will benefit his career more than the Operalia win did.

Bearing in mind the restrictions on them due to the format – plus the desire of the organisers to avoid copyright payments, meaning that the repertoire chosen was all 19th century – it was interesting to see how wisely some singers used their single ‘shot’… or not. If you’re a bass-baritone, for example, I struggle to see why you’d pick Don Basilio’s “La calunnia” when you haven’t got the sepulchral C sharps and Ds in your armoury.

The battle between the sexes was very much a walkover by the ladies. Of the men, a pair of American baritones disappointed – both in Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” – dry in tone and doing little with characterization. Of the three tenors, Darren Pene Pati from New Zealand, who won the Audience Prize, impressed with his bright, forward projection and golden tone in “Tombe degli avi miei” from Lucia di Lammermoor. Likeable French tenor Julien Behr had honeyed tone, but lacked glamorous top notes in his Faust aria. Romanian Ioan Hotea, who went on to win First Prize and Zarzuela Prize, certainly thrilled the audience with his nine top Cs in Tonio’s “Ah mes amis” from La Fille du regiment, though all but the last one was approached from fractionally below the note. 

Of the ladies, American soprano Andrea Carroll was far more confident in her zarzuela round than in Bellini’s “Qui la voce”, although she was scuppered here by Domingo’s erratic conducting – he spent much of the evening head buried in the score, failing to follow his singers closely enough. Kiandra Howarth gave an urgent, dramatic “Amour, ranime mon courage” (not quite as polished as Saturday’s JPYA gala) and Noluvuyiso Mpofo offered an assured Violetta, with a few intonation problems in “Ah fors e lui” but a technically accomplished “Sempre libera”.

The two leading ladies were startlingly different. South Korean Hyesang Park dazzled with her coloratura in the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor… all of it, including the cabaletta. This raises the question of competition rules regarding length of aria. As far as I can ascertain, there is none, so fair play to Hyesang Park for going the whole hog, enabling her to demonstrate her vocal technique across a full 15 minutes. I’ve never seen a Korean singer display quite such a lively character, especially in her zarzuela, which bordered on exaggeration. She carried off the Zarzuela Prize, however, and very nearly won First Prize too, but was floored by the Wagnerian punch of Norway’s statuesque Lise Davidsen. Last to perform, she sang a blistering “Dich teure Halle” which was rock solid in tone and with real “blade” to cut across the orchestra pit. It was a thrilling performance to experience and Davidsen deservedly walked away with First Prize, Audience Prize and the Birgit Nilsson Prize to boot. She’s worthy to follow in Nina Stemme’s footsteps as potentially the next great Wagnerian soprano.

With the House crawling with casting directors, it will be interesting to see who gets signed up where. In Operalia-land, the winners are sometimes those who walk away with the contracts rather than the gongs.