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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

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Opera Audiences feast on chestnuts in Pre-Yuletide Season

By Joseph So December 18, 2002

Popera (Opera Ontario)
Laura Whalen, soprano; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor;
Kimberly Barber, mezzo-soprano; Theodore Baerg, baritone.
Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, Daniel Lipton, conductor
Opera Ontario Chorus and Mississauga Choral Society
November 28, 2002, Hamilton Place

Puccini: La Bohème (Opera Mississauga)
Rosella Di Genova Mimi; Francesco Marcacci Rodolfo; Massimiliano Valleggi Marcello; Natalia Valli Musetta; Massimo Simeoli Schaunard; Theodore Coresi Colline; Ross Darlington Benoit/Alcindoro
Opera Mississauga Orchestra and Chorus, Dwight Bennett, conductor
November 30, 2002, Living Arts Centre, Mississauga

Opera America recently reported that La Bohème is the number one opera in North America the last decade. Indeed, warhorses the likes of Butterfly, Carmen, La Traviata, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia dominated the 'operatic charts'. Proving the axiom that 'if you build them, they'll come', performances of Opera Ontario's La Bohème in October and the follow-up opera pops concerts were very well attended, as was Opera Mississauga's entirely imported version of the Puccini masterpiece. Like comfort food and a pair of old shoes, these chestnuts are perfect antedotes for the impending winter and put the audience in a festive mood for the upcoming holiday season.

Opera Ontario had the benefit of four fine Canadian artists – a veteran with a wealth of experience and plenty of voice left, two singers in mid-career, and a young up-and-comer 'on the verge'. The 'old-timer' was Ted Baerg, now in charge of the voice program at University of Western Ontario. Kim Barber and Ben Butterfield are two artists well established in Europe, but recently decided to call Canada home once again. (Barber is now on the voice faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Butterfield recently married Dutch soprano Anne Grimm and relocated to Toronto) Laura Whalen, the newest kid on the operatic block, enjoyed a big success as the Opera Ontario Countess in Marriage of Figaro last season. They joined forces to offer an ambitious program of arias, an occasional duet or trio, and the Brindisi from Act 1 Traviata as the Finale.

Despite sounding slightly under-rehearsed, the singers performed ably, with Ted Baerg offering the most consistently satisfying singing. A seasoned performer, Baerg is sounding as good as ever, and his stage manner a model of professionalism. Ben Butterfield's plangent timbre and ebullient presence made up for sounding a bit small and constricted in Tamino's aria 'Dies Bildnis'. He improved noticeably later on with a fine 'Vainement ma bien aimée' from Le Roi d'Ys. Kim Barber, perhaps not yet warmed up, seemed tentative and backing away from the high notes as Rosina in 'Una voce poco fa', but redeemed herself with an excellent 'Voi che sapete' and a seductive 'Seguidilla' from Carmen.

The surprise of the evening was soprano Laura Whalen, whose voice has developed by leaps and bounds in the few short years since she was in the University of Toronto opera school. Newly slimmed down and looking glamorous, Whalen had the beauty of tone and the long breath-line for a very lovely 'Depuis le jour', despite a missed entry. Her Flower Duet from Lakme with Barber was a highlight of the evening. Whalen is definitely a singer to watch. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony played well under the experienced baton of Daniel Lipton, in a repertoire that the musicians probably don't get to play very often. The audience showed its appreciation with vociferous applause and was rewarded with 'Va, Pensiero' as an encore.

Compared to Opera Ontario's Bohème a month ago, the Opera Mississauga's imported version is altogether more conventional - no typewriter, no radio, and definitely no Nazi stormtroopers. Alas, there were also no great voices. Instead, we got a workmanlike production, sung reasonably well by a primarily imported Italian cast, combining for a pleasant if not particularly memorable evening.

This bunch of bohemians were slim and generally looked their part, despite three of the four men being bald. The best singer onstage was Massimiliano Valleggi as Marcello, who revealed a nice, firm baritone and good dramatic instincts. Natalia Valli (Musetta) was also a fine singing actress, looking pretty, moved exceptionally well and dominating the stage during her brief moments in the spotlight. The Mimi (Rosella Di Genova) had basically a fine voice, including some nice pianissimi and an excellent high C at the end of 'Soave fanciulla'. But the sound lacked the requisite warmth and allure. She was also hyperactive onstage, with far too much unnecessary movement –she would have benefited from firmer stage direction. As Rodolfo, Francesco Marcacci tended to force his smallish tenor, especially at the top. It really underscored the fact that good tenors don't grow on trees.

The sets, originally from L'Opera de Montréal, was small-scale but effective, especially the Act 3 scene set in the outskirts of Paris – one only wished there were a few falling snowflakes to complete the picture. The Café Momus scene was also pleasant-looking, though the single string of lights looked awfully lonely on that stage. Conductor Dwight Bennett tried hard to hold things together, but truthfully there were a few moments of ragged playing from the orchestra. No matter – this Puccini classic is always a pleasure at this time of year, and I think the audience had fun. The next Opera Mississauga production is The Barber of Seville in Feburary 2003. Box Office: (905) 306-6000

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