In 1749, George Frideric Handel invited Londoners to watch a public rehearsal of his newly composed Music for the Royal Fireworks. He was rewarded with nearly 12,000 eager attendees. Madison's opera devotees share a similarly dynamic spirit, as evidenced by the large and lively crowd at the Madison Early Music Festival's inaugural Handel Aria Competition. The competition concluded Monday night at the UW's Mills Concert Hall.
Eight emerging opera singers, ranging in age from 18 to 35, were culled from a pool of international applicants. The group then competed in front of a panel of three judges at the festival. Contestants were scored on their performances of two Handel arias, one from an oratorio and another from an opera. Each soloist was also given an opportunity to win over the concert's attendees for an Audience Favorite award. Following two and half hours of exuberant and engaging performances, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland earned top honors. Soprano Alison Wahl was the runner-up, and soprano Winnie Nieh was voted Audience Favorite.
One of the evening's highlights was soprano Saira Frank's precise technical work in "A Ruggiero crudel...Ombre Pallide" from Alcina, which featured beautiful intonation on the scales. Frank also commanded complex rhythmic passages, notably the measured dotted eighth notes that appear throughout "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth" from Handel's famous Messiah.
Up-and-coming tenor Blake Morgan gave a rich and expressive performance of "Deeper, and deeper still" from Jephtha, with excellent enunciation and notable cadence. His smooth phrasing had an almost meditative quality.
Sutherland's expressive "Dopo notte" from Ariodante was particularly impressive, her melismatic passages exhibiting an obvious ease in phrasing. Her singing range was broad, with very distinct contrasts in timbre between pitches and a distinctively lush tone on lower notes. Sutherland sang each piece with great attention to detail and near-flawless intonation, getting into character while embodying the technical and artistic facets of the music.