I’m not sure that I had ever heard anything by Heinrich Schütz before this afternoon but I’m glad that I have now. His St. John Passion formed the first half of the closing concert of the Toronto Bach Festival at St. Barnabas on the Danforth this afternoon. Written in 1666, towards the end of his life ,it’s steeped in the Lutheran tradition. There’s no orchestra. The main burden of the Gospel is taken by the Evangelist as narrator in a style not very far from the Anglican traditional style of singing metrical psalms. The emphasis is on the text; indeed on The Word. Members of the chorus contribute in similar style as Jesus, Pilate and so on. The narrative is interspersed with polyphonic choruses with sparse organ accompaniment perhaps hinting at an even older tradition where the meaning of the words mattered less.
There are some pretty silly opera plots. Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool comes to mind but the Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing probably tops even the thundering torrents of the Mersey as it descends from the Cheshire Alps for silliness. Basically one John P. Wintergreen is a candidate for POTUS. His campaign gimmick is that he will marry whoever wins a beauty contest, held naturally enough, in Noo Joysy. Unfortunately(?) he falls in love with the homelier corn muffin maven Mary Turner and marries her instead. He duly gets elected but diplomatic complications with the French follow when it is revealed that the pageant winner; Diana Devereaux of Louisiana is the “illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon”. Impeachment proceedings follow but, of course, there’s a happy ending. Along the way almost every US institution and region gets gently pilloried and the jokes are even funnier because what might have seemed risque in 1930 seems “business as usual” now, as when three White House interns sing about how the Presidential Mansion is the safest place in America for a young girl…
The COC has announced four additions to the COC Ensemble Studio for 2018/19. I don’t think there any surprises. The three prize winners from last season’s Centre Stage are joined by Lauren Margison, daughter of Richard and currently with the Atelier Lyrique in Montreal. Just for fun I researched how long the four had been on the OR radar. The most recent is Montreal based soprano Anna-Sophie Neher who was unknown to me until Centre Stage. Next would be mezzo Simona Genga; UoT graduate and top prize winner at Centre Stage. She first appeared in these pages in a review of a UoT concert in 2016. Bass-baritone Joel Allison has been on the watch list for a while. He first showed up in a review of a Talisker Players concert in March 2015 and I’ve followed him closely ever since, including his Norcop Prize winner recital. But by far the longest history goes to soprano Lauren Margison who I first wrote about as a 19 year old singing with her dad in the RBA in 2011! I wonder whether that record, seven years from first appearing in OR to joining the Ensemble Studio, will ever be broken. For the record, graduating this summer are Samantha Pickett, Megan Quick, Bruno Roy and Toronto’s favourite naked soprano Danika Lorèn.
The Opera Division’s fall production this year is Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Marilyn Gronsdal. Let’s start with the production. The sets are all paper and boxes with a few props and the costuming is 1940s. The aesthetic is film noir. There are trilbies and Don Ottavio is packing a piece in a shoulder holster. It set, for me and my companion at least, an expectation that this would be a “film noir production” but although there were nods in that direction; Leporello as the comic sidekick, statuette of the Commendatore as the murder weapon for example, the idea wasn’t really developed at all. Instead we got a very straightforward narrative with the a few twists. Gronsdal included a chorus of silent women who comment on the action (didn’t she do this in Saskatoon as well?) and Don Giovanni isn’t dragged down to Hell.
So last night was this year’s iteration of the COC’s glitzy competition with cash and places in the Ensemble Studio at stake. It’s a bit of a weird thing to write about because the public, and this year the media, only see a fraction of what the judges are judging. We saw each singer do one aria. There had been a closed round earlier in the day to which, unlike in previous years, the media were not invited. Then there’s what the judges have seen in rehearsal, reputation etc. All in all what happens on the night influences the outcome about as much as at an Olympic figure skating event. So, in many ways it’s surprising that my picks were as close to the judges as they were.
The contestants for this years Centre Stage; the competition for places in the COC’s Ensemble Studio have been announced. They are bass-baritone Joel Allison (Ottawa); tenor Matthew Dalen (Grande Prairie, Alta.); mezzo-soprano Simona Genga(Woodbridge, Ont.); soprano Natalie Image (Tsawwassen, B.C.); soprano Chelsea Rus (Abbotsford, B.C.); soprano Anna-Sophie Neher (Gatineau, Que.); and baritone Jonah Spungin (Ottawa). I’ve seen a fair bit of Allison, Rus, Dalen and Genga and I am absolutely not surprised at all that they are competing. They are all very promising young singers. I’m looking forward to hearing the others.
This year the judging panel includes regulars Alexander Neef, Roberto Mauro, Liz Upchurch, Wendy Nielsen and Nina Draganić but this year they will be joined by the extraordinary Mary Morrison, whose talent spotting credits include one Barbara Hannigan. Centre Stage is at the Four Seasons Centre on November 1st with the reception at 5.30pm and the competition starting at 6.30pm.
Yesterday’s lunchtime recital at Walter Hall was a collaboration between the Faculty of Music and the Department of Italian studies and explored the links between the source texts for various Italian operas and arias drawn from them. So each aria was paired with a reading (by Paolo Frascà and Sara Galli) plus an introduction on the literary context by Sara Maida-Nicol who curated the program. It was an interesting idea that turned out to be rather enjoyable. Plus, none of the singers had appeared in Tuesday’s show so it was a chance to take a look at a less familiar bunch.