What a pleasant Sunday afternoon of singing.

The weekend's third annual Annapolis Opera vocal competition proved to be the most delightful yet.

Over the past two weeks, nearly 40 aspiring singers auditioned for the competition's five judges. Sunday, the eight finalists entertained a modest but enthusiastic crowd at the Pascal Center on the campus of Anne Arundel Community College.

The panel of judges consisted of Ron Gretz, guest conductor of the Annapolis Opera; musicologist Eliot Zukerman of St. John's College; soprano Carolene Winter; Ava Shields, artistic director of the Annapolis Opera and conductor of the Arundel Vocal Arts Society; and Martha Wright, one of the company's founders and an honorary member of the Kennedy Center.

The judges' task was to evaluate the seven sopranos and one tenor who found their way into the final round. While there was, shall we say, a continuum of talent among the final eight, there were no runts in this litter. The unanimous conclusion was that a lot of very talented singers can be found in our neck of the woods. Sunday's winner was Deborah Arnold of Baltimore, a soprano who impressed the judges with her artistic maturity and dramatic intensity. She is known to local audiences as "Butterfly" in last spring's Annapolis Opera production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly."

Sunday's blue-ribbon performance featured a reprise of Butterfly's "Un bel di" and an energetic "Mi tradi," from Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

She was a felicitous choice. More deeply felt individual moments may have been supplied by some of the other sopranos, but Arnold is the full package and deserved the acclaim from the judges.

The afternoon's most striking single aria was provided by second-prize winner Zheng Cao, a mezzo-soprano from Potomac. In her hands, "Parto, Parto," from Mozart's shamefully underappreciated "La Clemenza di Tito," became one of the most ravishing entries in Mozart's extraordinary catalog of vocal masterpieces.

Lyrical, natural and sung from the emotional inside of the music, Cao's aria afforded me the opportunity to forget about her artistry and enter directly the heart and soul of Mozart. She was wonderful.

One of the enjoyable features of this competition is that the audience is polled to express a majority view of who the winner should be.

Third-place finisher Jennifer Post of Silver Spring was the crowd favorite -- and for good reason. Her opening selection, "Je veux vivre," from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," was tasteful and pleasant. But her second Juliet aria, this one from Vincenzo Bellini's "I Capuleti ed i Montecchi," was truly something special.

Sadness and tenderness were meltingly conveyed, and the audience clearly responded to the communicative sincerity of her singing.

Of course, the majority's choice was overruled by the judges' decision, a result that cheers the hearts of Platonists among us, I suppose.

All of the eight finalists received cash awards and no one went home unrewarded -- least of all the audience.

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