Innsbruck Early Music Festival 2022 Review: Cesti Competition

Tenor Laurence Kilsby Takes First Prize In Strong Competition

By Alan Neilson

(Photo: Die Fotografen)

The Innsbruck Early Music Festival’s Cesti Competition, now in its 13th year, continues to cement its standing as a prestige international singing competition for baroque specialists. The final, which took place in Innsbruck’s Haus der Musik in front of an enthusiastic audience, consisted of 10 singers from six countries, comprising two countertenors, five sopranos, two tenors and a mezzo-soprano, having been whittled down from an original 175 applicants from 37 countries. Each of the ten singers had to perform two arias, one of their own choosing and one from Vivaldi’s “La Fida Ninfa,” which will be the festival’s “Barockoper: Jung” in 2023.

Such was the quality of the singers’ presentation that the distinguished panel of judges under the chairmanship of Sebastien Schwarz certainly had its work cut out. All the singers did themselves proud, displaying real technical and interpretative ability, so that sifting through their performances even as a member of the audience, without any pressure, was no easy matter. It came as no surprise, therefore, that the winner of audience prize, which was awarded to Swiss soprano Chelsea Marilyn Zurflüh, did not happen to concur with the judges’ choice, who awarded first prize the the British tenor Laurence Kilsby.

A Well Deserved Winner

The 24 year old Kilsby chose the aria “Straghi, morti, sangue ed armi” from Handel’s “Rodrigo” as his aria of choice, which enabled him to establish his confident presence, show off his fresh toned, attractive voice to good effect and display his secure and well-managed technique, in which his ability to seamlessly integrate passages of coloratura into his presentation was particularly impressive.

For the aria from “La Fida Ninfa,” he chose “Deh ti piegha” in which his character Narete pleads for his and his two daughters release from the kidnapper Oralto. In a superbly sung performance he successfully managed to intertwine Narete’s despair and forlorn hopes, as he strung out deeply affecting phrases in which you could almost hear him crying. His delivery of slow emotionally laden coloraturas, his vocal beauty and the intensity of his expression were superbly rendered in what as a presentation of great maturity.

Other Prize Winners

The second prize winner Swiss soprano Chelsea Marilyn Zurflüh carried off a bundle of awards including the audience prize, a concert performance for Resonanzen Wien and a concert with Il Gusto Barocco under Jorg Halubek. For her arias she decided upon “Myself I shall adore” from Handel’s “Semele” and Vivaldi’s “Alma oppressa,” two pieces which allowed her to show off her attractive upper register and versatile coloratura to good effect. It was not all vocal fireworks, however, as she also displayed fine skill in delivering sensitive, delicately crafted lines, pleasingly accented with subtle coloring.

The third prize was awarded to the flamboyant Italian countertenor Nicolò Balducci who sang Vivaldi’s aria “Quai serpe tortuosa” and Handel’s aria “Svegliatevi nel core” from his opera “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.” Singing with a sense of enjoyment and freedom, his voice displayed a natural versatility, with a pleasing rhythmic quality which he employed expressively and successfully to capture the emotions contained within both arias. He also won the Young Artist award.

There where two other prize winners. The Italian soprano Martina Licari was awarded an engagement at next year’s Festival Valle d’Itria, for her sensitive, beautifully crafted presentations of Vivaldi’s aria “Alma oppressa” and A.Scarlatti’s aria “Se il cor mio dolor t’offende” from his opera “Griselda.” Without ever descending into excess, both were given emotionally compelling renditions, underpinned by her excellent vocal control.

A very different approach was taken by the Argentinian/Polish soprano Jaia Nurit Niborski Bolatti, who produced florid and energetic presentations of Handel’s “Myself I do adore” and Vivaldi’s “Alma oppressa,” in which she clearly reveled in spinning out lengthy coloraturas and versatile embellishments. She was awarded with a concert performance at Innsbruck’s Haus der Musik as part of the “Academie Concerts”

Fine Performances From All Involved

The remaining five singers can be pleased with their contributions in making the competition such an entertaining and interesting event.

Tenor Kieran White from the UK produced a neat performance, impressing with his attractive timbre and solid technique, although his overall presentation would have benefited if he had shown more ambition and taken a few more risks.

Italian soprano Carlotta Colombo displayed quality, especially with her ability to craft delicate lines, and engage positively with her arias. While she certainly has all the necessary qualities, a little fine tuning with leaps and integrating the top notes into the line, which often sounded abrupt and awkward in their delivery, would add more polish to her performance.

Norway’s mezzo-soprano Christina Jonsi produced a powerful and emotional presentation of Purcell’s “Thy hand Belinda!… when I am laid in earth” for which she received strong audience approval. Her second aria was not as successful, displaying less control during the more florid passages.

The UK’s Tom Scott-Cowell possesses a pleasing countertenor, which he used successfully to produce a very direct performance, in which he engaged strongly ywith his characters’ emotions.

Soprano Maud Bessard-Morandas from France has a strong presence, oozes confidence and sings with a wonderful sense of abandon. Although she produced lively and well-sung renditions for both arias, she displayed a tendency towards gimmickry and showiness which detracted from what were otherwise were very good performances.

The orchestra under the direction of Chiara Cattani provided the accompaniment, which was excellent throughout.

Overall, this was a marvelous competition with many fine performers, including those from singers unfortunate not to have been awarded a prize. Although the audience was in disagreement with the panel of judges as to the overall winner, it is likely that after hearing Kilsby’s reprise of “Deh ti piegha” following the award ceremony, they may well have changed their opinion, such was the intensity he added to his presentation, no doubt a result of the emotions released from having been adjudged the Cesti Competition winner for 2002.


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