The final of a singing competition always only ever represents the tip of an iceberg: the finale of a months-long process. In the case of The Mirjam Helin Competition, taking place this year for the eighth time, hundreds of video auditions were sifted through to find the 50-plus competitors invited to Helsinki. Of those only four male and four female performers made it into the final, accompanied by Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. But the Mirjam Helin distinguishes itself in several ways. There are different upper age limits of for the ladies and the gents (30 versus 32) and certain rules regarding repertoire: there must be music from a pre-1760 oratorio in the rounds, alongside song and opera.

Stefan Astakhov and Johanna Wallroth, winners of the 2019 Mirjam Helin Competition © Heikki Tuuli
Stefan Astakhov and Johanna Wallroth, winners of the 2019 Mirjam Helin Competition
© Heikki Tuuli

Another unusual feature is that the jury consists only of singers and former singers: this year they were Jorma Silvasti (also chairman of the jury), Olaf Bär (a former prize-winner), Ben Heppner, Vasselina Kasarova, Waltraud Meier, François Le Roux, Deborah Polaski and Kiri te Kanawa. There’s no arguing with the experience and star power of such a line-up, but plenty of room for debate regarding who they chose as the winners. Laureates in previous years include Elīna Garanča and René Pape; no singer in this final stood out as being pre-ordained for stardom. They made for a varied bunch, though, but with voices mainly in the medium-to-small category (we heard only one Verdi aria, only one Wagner and no Puccini).

Finland was represented by bass-baritone Jussi Juola, who didn’t quite sparkle enough as Leporello in the difficult opening slot, but whose tone seemed to become rounder and more complete with Hans Sachs’s “Flieder” Monologue – a far better fit temperamentally. South African soprano Palesa Malieloa revealed a lovely light-lyric voice that bloomed pleasingly in its upper range, but there were some technical issues still to be ironed out in her Haydn (Hanne’s “Welche Labung” from Die Jahreszeiten) and Stravinsky (“No Word from Tom” from The Rakes Progress). There were technical issues too from Teaa An, a former soprano who made the as yet not entirely convincing switch to mezzo only a year ago: her Strauss (Octavian’s “Wie du warst”) and Rossini (Cenerentola’s “Non pìu mesta”) were still works in progress.

Two performers stood out as being the most polished and complete. The American Bryan Murray, currently at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, unveiled an impeccably schooled baritone – impressively heroic in Moniuszko (Jontek’s aria from Halka) and melting, honeyed and hushed in Korngold (Fritz’s “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" from Die tote Stadt). The sparkling Swedish soprano Johanna Wallroth – her voice appealing, light and slightly wiry – offered immediately engaging, intelligent and detailed takes on “No Word from Tom” and Juliette’s “Je veux vivre”.

The most intriguing performance came from Italian-Venezualan countertenor Rodrigo Sosa Dal Pozzo. His voice, of unusual richness and colour, proved entirely persuasive in music purloined from fruity Russian mezzos (“Mjortvoje pole” from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky), and both he and the normally stoic Lintu seemed to have a whale of a time in Rinaldo’s “Or la tromba”.

Russian-born German baritone Stefan Astakhov (b. 1997), the youngest of the competitors by some margin, showed himself to be an astonishing talent in Billy Budd’s “Look! Through the port…” and a lively, cheeky “Largo al Factotum”. The voice, inevitably, is a long way off being technically finished, but it has a fine, ringing top, and he’s an entirely natural and instinctive performer. So too was the final singer to appear, the Russian soprano Olga Cheremnykh, whose stage experience was immediately apparent as she drew us into Marfa’s tragic world in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride. “Non so le tetre immagini” from ll Corsaro was maybe a less fitting choice, but her burgeoning lyric voice, rich in varied colours and with an appealing edge, is an exciting prospect.

And the winners? The judges went for a mixture of potential and polish. Astakhov, controversial winner of the men’s prize, represented the former, although it’s clearly impossible to know where such enormous potential in so young a singer is likely to take him. For polish, Wallroth won for the women: a singer of remarkable charm who one could imagine one day soon making an impressive Lulu. Dal Pozzo and Murray had been my joint tip for the men’s prize and in the end the countertenor pipped the baritone at the post for the second prize (and also walked away with the Finnish song prize), while my own favourite among the women, Cheremnykh, got the second prize in her competition.

There’s clearly no shortage of talent at the Mirjam Helin but one was left with several questions about the judge’s criteria, about the whereabouts of the bigger voices (perhaps potential Verdians struggle in oratorio and pre-1760 repertoire) and about which of this year’s crop one would tip for stardom. We’ll have to wait and see.

Hugo's press trip was sponsored by the Finnish Foreign Ministry.