La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review: COC Ensemble Season Opening Concert

Concert: Meet the Young Artists

COC Ensemble Season Opening Concert

Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

September 16, 2008

I just came back from the 3rd annual COC Ensemble Season Opening Concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre. This was a "Meet the Young Artists" concert, where the audience members get a preview of the 2008-9 edition of the Ensemble singers, some returning from previous year and others new. This year, the event was made even more significant than usual, thanks to an anonymous donor who has given the COC a whopping 2 million dollars in support of the Ensemble and the concert series - what a great start to the season!

The Ensemble lineup this year consists of five sopranos (Laura Albino, Ileana Montalbetti, Teiya Kasahara, Lisa DiMaria, and Betty Allison), one mezzo (Erin fisher), two tenors (Michael Barrett and Adam Luther), one baritone (Alexander Hajek), and one bass (Michael Uloth). Without exception, these artists are well trained, musical, with fresh, youthful instruments, ingratiating personalities and attractive stage presence. Some are of course more polished or have more experience than others, but they all have the potential for future careers in opera. Complementing the ten singers is an apprentice conductor, Samuel Tak-Ho Tam, who led the cast in "Questo e il fin", the Finale to Don Giovanni. The two accompanists were head of COC Ensemble Liz Upchurch, and Christopher Mokrzewski.

Each artist gave a brief self-introduction, plus a word or two about the piece he/she was about to sing. Mezzo Erin Fisher kicked off with the Sesto's aria from Giulio Cesare, which showed off her high mezzo to advantage. She is reminiscent of former Ensemble member Lauren Segal in voice and appearance - I can see her as Cherubino and Octavian. Bass Michael Uloth followed with Sarastro's aria from Zauberfloete, "In diesen heil'gen Hallen". He has an attractive stage presence - no small advantage in today's push for dramatic verisimilitude, and while his voice at this point is a light-weight bass, it will probably develop and darken with time. Laura Albino sang "Piangero" from Giulio Cesare with bright, dramatic tone - one wishes for a bit softer attack, more chiaroscuro, particularly in the dolce second verse, and a high piano.

Tenors are a rare commodity in the opera world, and the COC Ensemble boasts two, both from Newfoundland. Michael Barrett, brother of former Ensemble baritone Peter Barrett, sang the famous "Vainement, ma bien aimee" from Le roi d'Ys with nice tone, although his use of falsetto - as opposed to a true voix mixte - in the one-octave leap to above the stave may not be to everyone's taste. Baritone Alexander Hajek, in his second season, was the best of the men with a ringingly sung Champagne Aria. He was also most at east in front of an audience. His physical appearance might typecast him as a buffo in his future career - which is unfortunate, as his is the voice suitable for princely roles.

A new Ensemble member, sopano Ileana Montalbetti, sang Donna Anna's "Or sai". Hers is a big, budding spinto, a little steely and hard driven at times. In some ways, she reminds me of former member Joni Henson. Montalbetti sang quite well, with a big, ringing sound, perhaps a little short on polish and subtlety in her delivery, needing to keep the cutting edge from take over. Second year Ensemble member Teiya Kasahara sang "Regnava nel silenzio" from Lucia di Lammermoor, with a flair for drama and blazing high notes. The other tenor of this year's Ensemble, Adam Luther, sang Edgardo's aria from Lucia di Lammermoor. Luther impressed in the title role of Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni last June. His sound is suitably Italianate, and he sang "Fra poco a me ricovero" well, although one wished for more dynamic variation instead of the constant mezza forte he used.

The last two solo pieces turned out to be among the best offerings of the 80 minute concert. Second year soprano Lisa DiMaria offered "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" from Falstaff. Petite and bubbly in appearance, DiMaria is an excellent Nannetta, singing with a well focused, sweet lyric soprano, with a nice trill. The last of the singers - and certainly not least - was third year member soprano Betty Allison. She sang the exacting "Come scoglio" from Cosi fan tutte with beautiful, focused tone, well controlled vibrato, sure sense of pitch, and admirable fioratura. The last item on the program was a truncated Finale from Don Giovanni, featuring the whole cast, led by Ensemble conductor Samuel Tak-Ho Tam, who incidentally was the only one who did not speak to the audience. He led the Ensemble in a solid reading of the score, a little tentative perhaps, but with time and experience, his conducting is sure to grow.

All in all, this 2008-9 edition of the Ensemble is made up of 10 very talented singers, and they will prove indispensible to the upcoming productions this season.



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