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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

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All-Mozart program marks Labadie TSO Debut

By Joseph So December 2, 2002

Mozart Symphonies No. 39 and 41
Opera Arias from Le nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni
Russell Braun, baritone
Bernard Labadie, conductor
Roy Thomson Hall, November 21, 2002

Newly appointed artistic director of L'Opera de Montreal, Bernard Labadie enjoys a solid reputation as one of the best conductors in the baroque and classical repertoire in Canada. Anyone who attended his Messiah with his Les Violons du Roy at the George Weston Hall of the then-Ford Centre in Toronto several years ago would probably agree that his version of the Handel perennial Christmas offering is the best of the bunch. So it was high time that Labadie makes his TSO debut. The turnout was less than full but quite respectable for a Thursday evening.

The program choice was decidedly 'meat and potatoes' – two standard repertoire Mozart symphonies, with the addition of local favorite Russell Braun in Mozart opera arias. It was also a calculated risk – even with the improved acoustics, the cavernous Roy Thomson Hall was hardly the ideal venue for Mozart. The much-reduced TSO forces looked positively sparse on stage. This impression was unfortunately borne out in the opening Symphony No. 39 – the strings sounded awfully thin in the first movement. Perhaps it was a function of one getting used to the acoustics, or the orchestra having warmed up, the sound improved as the evening progressed. By the time Symphony No. 41 'Jupiter' rolled along, a fuller sound, complete with a nice, mellow glow seemed to have taken hold and the overall effect was lovely. Through it all, the debuting Labadie led the TSO stylishly and with a sure hand – in fact the Jupiter was conducted from memory.

I wished I had attended the third performance, which took place at the George Weston Hall on Sunday. At 1,100 seats, its smaller size and wood-lined acoustics would be much better suited to the proceedings. The soft-grained, medium-sized baritone of Russell Braun is not one of those that pins you to your seat with its sheer power and volume, or one that envelops you with the luxuriance of sound. Yet this very fine artist brings to his singing beautiful tone to be sure, and an uncommon level of dramatic expression, emotional commitment, and intelligence that is altogether winning. His Champagne Aria and in particular the 'Deh vieni alla finestra' from Don Giovanni, complete with extra embellishments, were among the most enjoyable in memory. Braun assayed his first-ever Don Giovanni in Quebec last season, and judging by his singing here, he has the makings of a superlative Don. Let's hope he will get a chance to repeat it in Toronto in the not too distant future, and in a space more suited to his talents – dare I say, the new opera house?

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