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COC Altamira Summer Opera Concert

By Joseph So / September 5, 2004

Like the CNE and back-to-school sales, ‘opera by the lake’ has become a Toronto tradition. In fact, this year’s three evenings of song at Harbourfront marked its tenth anniversary. These concerts, then as now, features established stars in town for the fall COC offerings as well as young voices from the Ensemble Studio.
It offers a good opportunity for opera newbies who don’t want to shell out big bucks to get a taste what it is all about, as well as a chance for the aficionados to hear up and coming singers. With its ‘popular’ programming and over-amplification — the orchestra was made to sound like a band sometimes, these concerts may not appeal to the purists, but hey the price is right! Even with a donation to aid the Regent Park School of Music and Centennial Infant and Child Centre, it was a cheap evening out and besides it’s all for a good cause. This year, the three concerts raised some $23,000 for the two charities.

I attended the third of the three evenings. Guest artists included Russian soprano Marina Mescheriakova returning to the company after an absence of several years, young Japanese tenor sensation Yasuharu Nakajima, and Turkish bass Burak Bilgili. They were joined by sopranos Joni Henson and Michèle Bogdanowicz, tenors Victor Micallef and Luc Robert, baritones Peter Barrett and Peter McGillivray, and bass Robert Gleadow, all members of the COC Ensemble.

Of the guest artists, Nakajima brought the house down with ‘Pour mon âme’ from La fille du Régiment, complete with nine clarion high Cs. Looking like an overgrown school boy in his Sunday best, Nakajima produced a big, vibrant sound somehow at odds with his diminutive size. Equally fine was Bilgili, prize winner of the Montreal International Vocal Competition three years ago, who sang (and acted) ‘La calunnia’ with buffo brio and impressively sturdy tone. The main curiosity of the evening was Marina Mescheriakova, a local favourite in the late 90’s when Toronto audiences were treated to her Luisa Miller, Madama Butterfly, and Norma. But she was not at her best Thursday, her singing marred by uneven tone and an obtrusive vibrato that threatened to over take anything above a mezza voce. She was short breathed and unsettled in ‘Io son l’umile ancella’ from Adriana Lecouvreur, and the taxing ‘Ernani, involami’ found her struggling with the coloratura and the fast tempo, lacking a sense of legato line.

Among the generally fine local talents, baritone Peter Barrett and bass Robert Gleadow shared top vocal honours. The 20-year old Gleadow has a sonorous bass and an irrepressible personality that endeared him to the audience — his ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Showboat was a highlight of the evening. Following such star power wasn’t easy, especially with a quiet, slow piece like Fritz’ aria from the little known Die tote Stadt, but Barrett’s gorgeous baritone, elegant style and impeccable German held the audience in rapt attention. Among the women, Michèle Bogdanowicz impressed as Zerlina in the duet with Gleadow; and I would be remiss if I don’t mention the mellifluous tone of concertmaster Marie Bérard in the violin solo, ‘Meditation’ from Thaïs.

The ‘intermission’ was reduced to five minutes to accommodate the Opera Camp Children’s Chorus, and it must be said that it is gratifying to see the excellent job done by Sandra Boyes and company year after year to engage these youngsters in the joy of music. COC general director Richard Bradshaw presided over the evening with his usual good humour. There was less bantering with the audience than usual, but he couldn’t resist an annual comment on the state of arts funding in Canada, which came in at just under four minutes. These shows are now so packed that one has to arrive a good two hours before to get a decent seat, and many are turned away each night. Given that Altamira Concerts have now been extended to include the symphony and the ballet, the organizers should seriously consider moving to a larger venue, such as Ontario Place where the TS played many moons ago. This could be the beginnings of a sorely needed summer performing arts festival for the city.

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