Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is a strange and compelling piece. Dramatically it is very “slow burn” with a narrative arc that builds over almost two hours to a final scene of searing intensity. Without that final scene the piece would have no reason but it justifies all and only one “fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” could possibly leave the theatre unmoved. It’s not just moving, done well it’s emotionally devastating. And that’s the state I left the Four Seasons Centre in last night after a near perfect performance of Robert Carsen’s extraordinary production.
Toronto based Opera Atelier have announced their 2013/14 season. The Fall production is a revival of the company’s 2008 Abduction from the Seraglio sung in German with English dialogue (groan). Casting is Lawrence Wiliford as Belmonte, Ambur Braid as Konstanze, Carla Huhtanen as Blondie, and Adam Fischer as Pedrillo and Gustav Andreassen as Osmin. A no doubt bare chested Curtis Sullivan will play the non-singing role of Pasha Selim. It’s an interesting cast especially considering the impact Ambur has been making recently and I’ll more than likely take a look. Continue reading
Last night saw the COC Ensemble Studio’s annual main stage performance. This year it was Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in a Christopher Alden production. It’s a somewhat quirky production that I haven’t fully digested yet and may need to wait until after seeing the main cast on the 22nd to come to a more considered view. My initial reaction is that it has a lot of interesting ideas, maybe one or two misguided ones and that the whole thing, while interesting, isn’t completely coherent. That said, Alden productions often seem more coherent second time around. And whatever I might think of the production, it didn’t distract from some very fine performances.
The COC today announced six new singers will join the Ensemble Studio for the 2013/14 season. If you read my review of the Ensemble Studio competition in November you’ll not be surprised. The three prize winners; bass-baritone Gordon Bintner, tenor Andrew Haji and mezzo Charlotte Burrage are among the six as is my pick, dramatic soprano Aviva Fortunata. The remaining two are baritone Clarence Frazer and mezzo Danielle MacMillan who were also quite impressive in the competition.
The Ensemble Studio is losing Mireille Asselin, Neil Craighead, Rihab Chaieb, Chris Enns and Ambur Braid as well as both pianists; Timothy Cheung and Jenna Douglas, at the end of this season though all of them can be seen in some capacity in La Clemenza di Tito next month. Rihab is also appearing in Dialogues of the Carmelites in the spring. There’s no word on new non-singing talent for Ensemble. I’m going to be really interested to see what’s next for these guys. We’ve had some good times together.
Last night saw the first of two workshop performances of Act 2 of The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G., a new full scale opera with music by Aaron Gervais and libretto by Colleen Murphy. Act 1 was similarly workshopped last year. It’s being produced by Tapestry New Opera in the Ernest Balmer Studio at The Distillery. The second performance is tonight.
The piece is about sex trafficking. Oksana is a Ukrainian girl tricked, raped and forced into an Italian brothel controlled by Russian organized crime. At the beginning of Act 2 she has escaped and is living at a refugee shelter run by a Canadian priest in Brindisi. The story concerns her relationship with the priest, her desire to return to her family and her pimp’s determination to get his hands on her again. It’s dramatic, emotionally charged and ends badly. It’s neither overly melodramatic nor crushingly intellectual and it works very well as an opera libretto. Somewhat oddly it’s written in four languages; English, Italian, Russian and Ukrainian, apparently for essentially “naturalistic” reasons. I think the logic is off but it didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the piece. Continue reading
Last night saw the annual main stage performance by the COC’s young artist programme, the Ensemble Studio. This year it was Handel’s Semele in the production which I saw a couple of weeks ago. The main roles were cast from the Ensemble Studio with the the exception of the countertenor role of Athamas which was played by Ryan Belongie, an Adler Fellow. The title role was split with Mireille Asselin singing the first two acts and Ambur Braid coming in for the third act. This seemed like a sensible solution given the size of the role and the two singers’ strengths. Continue reading
Last night saw the third performance in the current run of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Canadian Opera Company.
It’s a peculiar work. It was Offenbach’s first and only foray into grand opera and he didn’t live to complete it. This leaves all sorts of performance issues regarding orchestration, sequence of the acts and spoken dialogue vs accompanied recitatives among others. The COC version uses the conventional act order; Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and recitatives with orchestral accompaniment which makes for a long night but is probably the best fit with director Lee Blakeley’s take on the piece, previously seen at Vlaamse Opera in 2000.
The free concert series that the COC puts on in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre often has interesting programs and frequently the performances are very good indeed. It’s also pretty good value for money. It’s not often though that the line up is as starry as today’s gig. Baritone Russell Braun was joined by his L’Amour du Loin costars Erin Wall (soprano) and Krisztina Szabó (mezzo) plus Ensemble Studio tenor Chris Enns. On the piano were COC Music Director Johannes Debus and Carolyn Maule.
They kicked off with Brahms’ Liebeslieder-Walzer. They were performed with verve and skill and quite a bit of humour but I’m afraid it was still Brahms. In my book Brahms should be loved from afar. I much preferred the selections from Schumann’s Spanische Liebeslieder which followed. I particularly liked Russell’s rendering of Flutenreicher Ebro which showed great feeling for the words and real skill in articulating different moods through voice colour. Krisztina also gave us a ravishing version of Hoch, hoch sind die Berger.
The revelation for me though was John Greer’s settings of Canadian folk songs; All Around the Circle. Looking at the words I thought this was going to be really hokey but in fact both the vocal arrangements and piano accompaniments are really pretty sophisticated and right up there with better known English and Australian folk song settings for voice and piano. The quartet gave them all they had. Lots of attack, good ensemble work and tons of humour. (One needs humour with a line like “She’ll be waiting for me there with the hambone of a bear”!). Terrific piano playing here too from Johannes and Carolyn. It was fun! (And great value for money)
It feels good to be back listening to live music after a bit of a drought. Today I was at a lunchtime recital in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre given by members of the Canadian Opera Company Studio Ensemble. It was very good indeed. I want to start with the undoubted highlight; Jacqueline Woodley‘s performance of Judith Weir’s piece for unaccompanied soprano, King Harald’s Saga. It’s a complex, fascinating and very difficult piece requiring the singer to switch between voices and to pull off a range of singing styles. Woodley was awesome. I’ve heard her now in quite a few contemporary pieces, though perhaps none as hard as this, and she has always impressed.
Almost as impressive was Ileana Montalbetti’s performance of Libby Larsen’s Donal Oge. It’s a work that requires considerable power from the singer and Ileana, unsurprisingly delivered. She’s got a big voice and she knows how to use it. Neil Craighead gave us two songs by Cecile Chaminade. He sounds a good deal more powerful than last time I heard him. He has a lovely tone and now the power too. He hasn’t quite got the knack of throttling it back yet but that will come I expect. We also got some fiendishly difficult Alma Mahler songs which clearly taxed tenor Chris Enns. They would have taxed anyone I think. Mireille Asselin gave a pleasing unaccompanied performance of a piece from Hildegard von Bingen and the programme was rounded out by two duets by Fanny Hensel sung by Asselin and Craighead and Montalbetti and Enns.
The pianists were the excellent Jenna Douglas and the even more impressive Timothy Cheung. All in all, this was as good a concert as I have heard in the COC’s free lunchtime series.
Last night we went to the Quilico Awards competition. The prize was set up in honour of Canadian baritone Louis Quilico to support various aspects of vocal competition and performance and it has been competed for and awarded in different ways over the years. This year it was a vocal competition featuring the ten young singers of the COC Ensemble Studio. It was held in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons centre and Alexander Neef (COC), David Spears (Opera Hamilton) and John Hess (Queen of Puddings Music Theatre) were the judges. It was a free gig but held at 5.30pm with minimal publicity on a week day so it perhaps wasn’t surprising that the audience was a bit thin. The format was that each singer prepared three arias. S/he sang one of his/her choice then the jury selected one of the other two. The third was held in reserve in case of a tie (which didn’t happen). Liz Upchurch was the accompanist throughout which was rather impressive in itself.
The standard was really very high. I’ve heard all these singers before, either in recital and/or on stage at the Four Seasons Centre. They are all good and getting better. Repertoire was quite varied. There was lots of Mozart (unsurprising since the Ensemble Studio’s last two productions have been Idomeneo and Die Zauberflöte) but we also got Barber, Purcell, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Handel, Verdi, Wagner, Floyd, Smetana, Korngold, Britten and Barber. Quite a variety really.
One of my top picks would have been Met bound Wallis Giunta (mezzo) who sang “Parto, parto” from La Clemenza di Tito which I’ve heard her do before and the very different “Nobles seigneurs, salut!” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Wallis’ musicality (as well as technical ability) was very evident in the way she tackled the tricky rhythmic flexibility of the piece. (You can check out what I mean about tricky rhythms here).
The other would have been baritone Adrian Kramer who goes from strength to strength. He gave us “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt and what has rather become his party piece, Sid’s aria “Tickling a trout” from Britten’s Albert Herring. Watch out for this guy. He has a very good voice and wicked comic timing but showed he also has a lyrical side in the Korngold.
Had I been a judge I would have found picking a third winner close to impossible. There was so much to like. So what did the judges decide?
In third place they had tenor Chris Enns (a fine Tamino earlier this season). Last night he gave us Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin and “Here I Stand” from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. I particularly liked the Tchaikovsky which showed off a nicely developing lyrical tenor voice very well.
Second was dramatic soprano Ilieana Montalbetti. Ileana is a bit of an anomaly. The other girls in the programme are your modern lyric, look the part, sort of modern soprano/mezzos (one of them moonlights as a fashion model). Ileana is the one truly dramatic voice and can we say she looks a bit more like the popular image of a dramatic soprano (actually she’s not really that big but…). She gave us “Come in quest’ora bruna” from Simon Boccanegra and “Einsam in trüben Tagen” from Lohengrin. The RBA is not a huge space and it was piano accompaniment so I don’t think she was close to maximum power (I’ve heard her sing much louder!) but the impression of lots of gas in the tank was definitely there along with a good deal of control and attractive tone colour.
The winner was Adrian Kramer. No surprise there.
Fortunately for us we will get to see most of these singers next month on stage in various roles. Ambur Braid is singing Amore in Orfeo ed Euridice, where Simone Osborne is understudying Isabel Bayrakdarian’s Euridice. Rihab Chaleb will sing Tisbe and Ileana will sing Clorinda in La Cenerentola. Ariadne auf Naxos has a slew of Ensemble Studio members in the cast. Simone Osborne sings Naiad, Adrian Kramer is the Wigmaker, Chris Enns is Scaramuchio and Michael Uloth is Truffaldino and it seems like everyone is understudying something!
There are good things in Toronto. How many places can you see ten first rate singers perform for two hours in a beautiful, acoustically excellent setting, for free?