La Scena Musicale

Monday, June 15, 2009

This Week in Toronto (June 15 - 21)

The centerpiece of this week's vocal scene is the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio's production of Cosi fan tutte. This must be one of the most popular operas for opera schools and young artist programs, and for good reason. First of all, Mozart is good for young voices still in development - it is said that the ability to sing Mozart well is a sign of vocal health and good technique. Cosi is particularly popular because it allows six soloists to show off their voices in many delightful arias and ensembles. The Royal Conservatory of Music's Cosi last April was a smashing success, so it will be interesting to compare it to the COC Ensemble's production. Current and former COC Ensemble Studio members who will be singing in the production are: Sopranos Betty Allison, Ileana Montalbetti and Laura Albino (Fiordiligi), Erin Fisher and Lauren Segal (Dorabella), Alexander Hajek and Justin Welsh (Guglielmo), tenors Michael Barrett and Adam Luther (Ferrando), sopranos Lisa DiMaria and Teiya Kasahara (Despina), and Michael Uloth and Jean-Paul Decosse (Don Alfonso). Conductors are Martin Isepp and Steven Philcox. There will be four performances starting this evening (June 15) at the Imperial Oil Theatre at the COC headquarters on 227 Front Street East. Three more performances take place on June 17, 19, and 21. All performances at 7:30 pm except June 21 at 2 pm. Tickets were all gone a long time ago, which led the COC to add extra seats. Do call the company to ask about availability.

For those who missed the Met in HD documentary The Audition, this evening is your last chance, at selected Cineplex theatres at 7:00 pm. There are quite a few theatres in the GTA carrying these Met shows - the ones I am familiar with are Sheppard Grande at Yonge and Sheppard, Scotiabank Theatres at Queen and John, and Silver City at Yonge and Eglinton. I enjoyed this show enormously the first time around and will see again tonight. In this feature-length documentary you will see American soprano Angela Meade, who won the Montreal competition back in late May. If you like the tenor voice, this documentary of the 2007 auditions is a real treat, with four tenors in the finals. Unfortunately this was one year without a Canadian finalist - soprano Miriam Khalil, seen in the beginning of the documentary, did not make the cut. 2006 had Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, and in 2008 we had Vancouver soprano Simon Osborne. Of the eleven finalists, six were declared "winners", although anyone who reached the finals against such fierce competition should be considered winners. There are also offstage, real life drama in the documentary as well, but I don't want to give it away by mentioning the details here.

While on the subject of Met in HD, it has just been announced that there will be a series of six Met Summer presentations - I Puritani (June 27), Magic Flute (July 11), Eugene Onegin (July 25), Barber of Seville (Aug. 8), La fille du Regiment (Aug. 22). All on Saturdays at 12 noon. These shows are repeats of previous seasons. Tickets are at a bargain price of $9.95, and children age 3 -13 can get in free! These will be at the usual Cineplex locations. Do check your favourite locations for availability.

The mini Bartok-Strauss Festival of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra continues with pianist Emanuel Ax playing Strauss's Burleske, as well as Bartok's Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion. Although I do find the combination of Strauss and Bartok to be a little eclectic, any chance to hear Ax is not to be missed. Also on the program is Strauss's delicious Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Performances are June 17 and 18 at 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

COC Ensemble Studio La Boheme showcases Voices of the Future

Yannick-Muriel Noah (Mimi) and Adam Luther (Rodolfo) in Act 4 of La boheme. (Photo: Heather Lewis)

One of the joys of opera going is to discover new and exciting voices. Those in attendance at Tuesday's noon hour concert at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto were treated to a delightful display of the vocal richness Canada has to offer. Current and former members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio offered selections from Puccini's La boheme to a packed Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. The COC is staging this perennial favourite in a series of 12 performances starting April 17, starring a cast of nearly all Canadian talent, led by former Ensemble member Frederique Vezina (Mimi), David Pomeroy (Rodolfo), and Peter Barrett (Marcello). Often we forget that behind the "first cast" is a team of "cover artists" or understudies who are ready, willing, and able to take over in case of an indisposition. Yesterday we got to hear the cover singers showing what they can do. Without the benefit of sets, costumes and orchestra, these singers managed to bring Puccini's music to life through their voices and the force of their personalities.

l to r (Laura Albino, Alexander Hajek, Yannick-Muriel Noah, Adam Luther, Peter McGillivray, Michael Uloth)
Photo: Heather Lewis

Leading the cast was soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah as Mimi. Noah made a splash last season replacing an ailing Eszter Sumegi in two performances of Tosca, receiving raves. The first prize winner of the prestigious Hans Gabor (Belvedere) Competition in Vienna two years ago, Noah was given a contract to sing the title role in La Wally last fall in Klagenfurt (Austria), receiving critical acclaim. As Mimi, her rich and dark-hued spinto was shown to advantage, her "Donde lieta" a model of delicacy and emotional power. Partnering her as Rodolfo was tenor Adam Luther, who was a youthful and impetuous Jacquino in Fidelio earlier this season. Tenors with good voices are always in demand, and when one combines voice with handsome stage presence, it is a recipe for success. As Rodolfo, Luther sang with ringing tone, only a little short on chiaroscuro. Baritone Alexander Hajek's Marcello was engaging and stylishly sung. Former Ensemble member Peter McGillivray nearly stole the show as a lively and big-voiced Schaunard. Bass Michael Uloth took full advantage of Colline's brief moment to shine in "Vecchia zimarra" The trio of Musettas - sopranos Laura Albino (Act 2), Lisa DiMaria (Act 3)and Teiya Kasahara (Act 4) all brought their unique gifts to the role. Albino sang a sassy "Quando m'en vo"; DiMaria made a vivid impression in her exchanges with Marcello, and Kasahara was suitably sympathetic and compassionate in Mimi's final moments. Ensemble Studio conductor Samuel Tak-Ho Tam offered full support to the singers, as did collaborative pianist Christopher Mokrzewski. With twelve performances scheduled - a huge number and two more than usual given the popularity of Boheme - I wouldn't be surprised if some of these singers will get their moment in the sun.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Feb.14-20)

The big event in classical music in Toronto this week is the appearance of pianist Radu Lupu at Roy Thomson Hall, for two performances (Feb. 12 and 14 8 pm) in Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3, conducted by Peter Oundjian. Also on the program is Stravinsky's Scherzo fantastique and Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. Beethoven No. 3 has appeared frequently in Lupu's program, ever since he won the top prize in Leeds in 1969 with this work. I did not attend the first show but I understand it was very well received, as expected of course, by the audience. Given the economic downturn, concert attendance has been soft lately, but the hall was near capacity, a credit to his drawing power. You can catch the second performance this evening.

On the operatic front, be sure to catch Fidelio (Feb. 15, 18) and Rusalka (Feb. 14, 17, 20) if you haven't already, at the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre. I went back to see Fidelio a second time on Feb. 12, to hear Richard Margison taking on Florestan. His attack on the opening "Gott!" in his Dungeon Aria was completely pianissimo, without the typical crescendo - it makes for a very interesting effect. He sang very well and received a well deserved ovation at the end. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka continues her very lyrical Leonore, full of womanly warmth and gleaming tone. Mats Almgren blew me away with his magnificent black bass, and I was particularly impressed with the totally convincing (vocally and dramatically) Marzelline of Virgina Hatfield. This Fidelio is not to be missed.

It doesn't get a lot of press, but the COC has a wonderful free concert series. On Thursday Feb. 19, the COC Ensemble Studeio artists will give a noon hour concert of Czech arias and songs by Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek and Fibich, under the direction of Liz Upchurch. The Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre is not large, so if you want to get in, do show up at least 45 minutes early to line up.

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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.