This photo is of course in no way a comment on anything that happened to me yesterday when encountering anybody. I am not adept with Photoshop and can’t work out a way to replace the cow with a generic silhouette of a diva.

I’ve just received a comment at the JDCMB link site from someone who is working in the box office here. He/she lets off steam very concisely about hatred for the artists who have cancelled, since he/she ends up as the target for angry ticket-holders who feel short-changed. S/he would like to remind these individuals that s/he is not Grimaud, Villazon or any of the others, so please stop shouting at the innocent staff!

Meanwhile, here is something you see only in Verbier:

Only in Verbier 1

New experiences are usually one of the joys of festival-going. But one new experience I certainly didn’t expect was being half trampled underfoot in a stampede of well-heeled Swiss attempting to get into a church to hear some students singing.

That’s how big the buzz was around La Bohème. This was the culmination of the singing masterclasses; over the last two and a half weeks these gifted young professionals (as they are; they’re well beyond what we think of as student level) have been studying their roles with the likes of Barbara Bonney, Angelica Kirchschlager, Nellie Miricioiu and Tim Carroll; the latter threw together a terrifically convincing semi-mis-en-scène, a small chorus of volunteer ladies materialised for the third act, and an orchestra of four winds and four strings was assembled with Ilyich Rivas to wield a baton. The result was as moving a Bohème as I’ve ever seen in my life – indeed, more so, since while I expect to be snuffly at the end, I don’t usually lose it to that degree in act 1 through the sheer beauty of what I’m hearing. There were necessary cuts, especially in a chorusless and kidsless Act II, but we weren’t there to hear an opera-house experience; this was an exceptional occasion on which all compromises were instantly forgiven.

Nor do the performers usually begin a performance by begging their props from the audience. Each character declared what he or she needed and concert-goers offered up the objects they could. Rodolfo and Marcello burned a festival programme, Mimi’s bonnet was a silk scarf; but Colline’s overcoat was the pick of the bunch: a rather elegant ladies’ jacket in what looked like pure mink.

Yesterday I promised to introduce you to the stars of tomorrow, so here they are. I would like you to meet:

CARLOS OSUNA (Rodolfo). A Mexican tenor – yes, one of those – who could give the missing Villazon some extremely worrying moments. He has the full range from deep, soft tenderness to a very powerful top register and doesn’t mind holding the high notes to prove it. I suspect he was nervous – actually, I suspect they were all pretty scared, since the PR department had wheeled in something like 15 critics – but he seemed to relish the romance and the boys’ horsing around; plus the end was desperately affecting. ‘Che gelida manina’ and ‘O soave fanciulla’ soared and stroked with the finest. Carlos was awarded a special bursary at the end donated by a festival devotee for an outstanding young singer who could also use the help. He won second prize in a major competition in New York last year  (Licia Albanese International Vocal Competition) and is now a company member at the Basel Opera.

NARINE OJAKHYAN (Mimi) Our Mimi, from Yerevan, Armenia, inhabited the role more than many more famous sopranos manage to. Her voice has a wonderful truth and purity to it; she seems born for Puccini’s lyric heroines and I could imagine her delicacy of presence and strength of voice serving her well in Madama Butterfly someday. She’s won prizes in a fair number of competitions and has sung with Dame Kiri in Hong Kong; she’s also sung Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro with Colin Davis conducting. Wonderful girl, wonderful gift.

NETTA OR (Musetta). Sometimes a mouth opens and a roof leaves its joists. A real sock-it-to-em coloratura bowled out in a glamour-with-heart performance from this multiple prizewinning young soprano who’s already been presented by the Salzburg Festival as one of the ‘stars of a new generation’. Possibly the best Musetta I’ve heard in quite some years.

COZMIN SIME (Schaunard) A Romanian baritone with exceptional charm and strong stage presence, who could easily have stolen the show if the others hadn’t been just as superb. Again, lots of prizes to his name and performances as Almaviva, Guglielmo, Marcello and Nick Shadow already behind him, plus visits to Aix and Pesaro’s festivals. I’ll be hearing him again in London next weekend, much to my delight.

JUSTIN HOPKINS (Colline) Superb, strong and characterful young bass from Philadelphia who’s been singing since he was eight. He’s studied in Milan and sung roles such as Don Alfonso and Sarastro. His tender farewell to his coat, mink notwithstanding, was spot-on, balancing irony and real pathos, and brought the house down. (He’s sitting at the next table in the internet cafe as I write this.)

OWEN GILHOOLY (Marcello) If something about him looks familiar to us Brits, that’s because his brother John runs the Wigmore Hall. Irish-born and trained at the RCM and National Opera Studio in London, he’s the proud owner of an even, reliable and characterful tone and plenty of acting ability that blossomed both in the Benoit-the-Landlord scene and when faced with Musetta in the Cafe Momus.

PIOTR LEMPA (Benoit/Alcindoro) This youthful Polish bass didn’t have as much to do as we’d have liked; oodles of character and a voice with a rich beauty to it. He’s singing a great deal in Wales, it seems, so hopefully we’ll see him again closer to home. His future schedule includes Rigoletto, his biog says.

ILYICH RIVAS (conductor). I’ve kept the most remarkable for last. How does a 17-year-old lad leap apparently fully formed onto a podium? He made the whole thing work, on a few days’ rehearsal; but it was a lot more than holding the participants together. He was unfailingly sensitive to Puccini’s rubato and pace, followed the singers better than many twice his age, was precise of gesture and vivid of personality. He has the look of a cross between Dudamel, Rattle and Jurowski, plus the latter’s manager to take care of him, and if he isn’t the next big name to hit the conducting scene then I will eat my hat and Mimi’s too.

Standing ovations, prizes, tears and a general sense of disbelief that such an astonishing afternoon could take place so unexpectedly – even here, where perhaps we should expect it. I feel that the Academy has begun to drive the festival, rather than vice-versa, here in Verbier; rather than a posh festival with a few masterclasses attached, it’s the Academy that provides the heart and soul and living vibe of creativity and excitement that we’re breathing in along with the pines and the fields and the first-class onion soup. The stars who cancel can go hang-glide.

I did go along to the chamber concert last night as well; first, a serious, finely performed Mozart K515 C major Quintet led by ‘the Chocolate Fiddler’ Leonidas Kavakos (a big JDCMB favourite), with Henning Kraggerud, Nobuko Imai, a second violist whose name I am currently missing and Frans Helmerson on cello. The Ebene Quartet and Nicholas Angelich were back after that for the Franck Piano Quintet: a feast of fin-de-siecle mysticism, with the Ebene’s leader, Pierre Colombet, providing white-hot vibrato and the colour palette of an Odilon Redon.

But the first half went on for an hour and a half, those benches in the church are extremely hard, there’s no air, and after sitting there for more than five hours in total yesterday, I realised that not only was the bum numb but also I’d o’d’d on music. It would have been a Verklaerte Nacht too far, so I went back to my chalet to get a bit of kip before facing life again today. However, I’m told that the sextet moved the earth.

Tune in again for the low-down on what happened up the mountain (and down it) today, not to mention the great Gergiev’s Salome, complete with Miss Voigt, Mr Jerusalem and the one and only Mrs Jones.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"