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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

Chant 2007 Finals – Day 3

By Joseph So May 31, 2007

All good things had to come to an end, and for us voice buffs, this has been a great competition. It started a bit slowly but gathered momentum along the way. Tonight was a fitting climax, with four very strong candidates:

Joshua Hopkins baritone (Canada)
Mozart – “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro” – Le nozze di Figaro
Massenet – “À quoi bon l’économie” – Manon
Bellini – “Ah, per sempre” – I Puritani
Ravel – Don Quichotte à Dulcinée

To my ears, of the current crop of young Canadian baritones, Joshua Hopkins ranks at the very top. Beautiful voice, solid training, well-honed technique, strong musicality, engaging personality onstage – this man has it all. I saw him last summer as Papageno at the Santa Fe Opera Die Zauberfloete, a new production specially mounted to showcase Natalie Dessay in her first-ever Pamina. The audience reception for Hopkins was equal to, perhaps even surpassing that for the prima donna. Tonight, his lyric baritone never sounded better. In the Nozze aria, he was elegance personified – no excessive histrionics or playing to the audience, he just let his gorgeous voice speak for itself. His high notes were free and easy. His handsome stage presence and aristocratic bearing are qualities that opera intendants are looking for these days. In fact, his voice and stage persona reminds me of a young Gerald Finley. If I were to criticize, occasionally, he can look a bit smug – or maybe even arrogant – onstage. (Although there was not a hint of that in his Santa Fe Papageno last summer) The Puritani aria showed that he is equally at home in Italian opera, although nobody would seriously consider him a Verdi baritone at this stage of his career. The most enjoyable part of his program was the Ravel Don Quichotte songs – fabulous singing and acting, plenty of swagger in his delivery and a pleasure from beginning to end. I predict great things for Joshua Hopkins in the future.

Leticia Brewer soprano (Canada)
Dvorak – “Song to the Moon” – Rusalka
Gluck – “Divinités du Styx” – Alceste
Verdi – “Salce, salce…Ave Maria” – Otello
Berlioz – I’Île inconnue

At only 27, Brewer already has the makings of an important lirico-spinto. Like Fiset, her tone is lovely, even throughout its range, with a warm middle register, qualities that I look for in a singer. I see a lot of similarities between the two singers. Her Rusalka, while not quite flawless, was an impressively poised piece of singing. I particularly loved her mezza voce in this, although sometimes it appeared that her piano notes didn’t sufficiently project to the auditorium, and she cut off the last note of a phrase too abruptly. She offered luscious tones in the Gluck aria, careful never to overuse the chest voice. I was impressed with her accuracy – the B-flats and Bs were all in place. Dramatically she was a touch on the placid side. Her best singing of the evening was the “Salce, salce…Ave Maria”. The music sits well in her voice, and for twelve minutes, she held the audience spellbound. I felt she made a genuine connection with the music, and she was really into the character she was portraying. I find her Desdemona very moving, very human. The orchestra under conductor Daniel Lipton rose to the occasion and offered her good support. After such a tour de force, the Berlioz piece was almost an afterthought which she delivered with a pure sense of joy. This was a performance to treasure.

Matthew Garrett tenor (USA)
Mozart – “Dies Bildnis” – Die Zauberfloete
Debussy – “O temps à jamais effacé” – L’Enfant prodigue
Massenet – “En fermant les yeux” – Manon
Gounod – “Salut, demeure” Faust

Two tenors made up the second half of the evening. Garrett has a compact, pleasant lyric tenor, with a well focused sound which he uses intelligently. His German and French are accurate if a bit ‘text-book’ and slightly exaggerated, as if he learned everything phonetically. Every syllable was enunciated to the fullest extent, and the end result was a general lack of line to his singing. His was a very demanding program. I liked his Manon aria a lot, with some very nice soft singing. I would have loved to have heard the more dramatic St. Sulpice aria to see what he could do with it. I found his acting a little wooden and not sufficiently nuanced – his gestures tended to be generalized and not all that connected to the dramatic situation. The acid test of his program was the Faust aria, one of the most difficult of all tenor arias. He sang it well, a little problem with the high A (a slight blip to his intonation) just before the C at the end notwithstanding. I was sitting in the fourth row, and after the last note, he let out a big breath and looked visibly relieved. Who could blame him?

Steven Ebel tenor (USA)
Britten – Serenade for tenor and horn
Stravinsky – “Here I stand” – The Rake’s Progress
Mozart – “Se all’impero” – La Clemenza di Tito
Thomas – “Elle ne croyait pas” Mignon

A giant of a man, pony-tailed, looking all gangly and awkward onstage, but the sounds that came out of his throat was anything but awkward. He began with the daunting Serenade for Tenor and Horn. Ebel has an amazing head voice which he uses to great advantage in this piece. The a capella opening of the second song was striking. The tessitura of the cycle is very high, with fiendishly difficult coloratura, but it held no terror for Ebel. Britten wrote this for Peter Pears, who had an unusual voice to say the least. Few tenors could do this piece justice, and Ebel sang it as beautifully as I have heard from anyone. If I were to nitpick, Britten and Stravinsky back to back was not ideal programming for a French audience! Ebel followed with the Tito aria, which is of course much lower, sung in his ‘true’ voice. I found this, together with the Britten, were two of the more enjoyable pieces of singing this evening. It displayed a good sized voice, lovely tone, with nice projection and excellent flexibility, altogether a winning combination. His last item was the Mignon aria, once again using his beautiful head tones. More problematic was his stage manner – physically awkward, with some quirky body movements, and – I hope I am not being unkind fro pointing it out – wearing an ill-fitting tuxedo with sleeves much too long for him. But with a voice like that, I’ll take it any day.

After the conclusion of the competition, the jury retired to deliberate, and after only about fifteen minutes, the audience was summoned back to the auditorium. Well, it turned out to be a false alarm! There was at least another fifteen minutes before Monsieur Bourbeau and the jury panel came out to announce the winners:

First prize: Marianne Fiset
Second prize: Steven Ebel
Third prize: Evgenia Grekova
Fourth prize: Julie Bouliane
Fifth prize: Leticia Brewer
Sixth prize: Peter Barrett

I had drawn up my own list immediately after the end of the competition, and I am happy to say that I got five of the six winners. The first prize winner, Marianne Fiset, was a forgone conclusion. All the planets aligned properly for her to win this competition. She should be very proud of what she accomplished. The only one I have on my list missing from the final outcome was Joshua Hopkins. I had him number 2 on my list. I must say I was shocked and disappointed that Hopkins was passed over by the jury. With a few more prizes yet to be announced, like the Chalmers Award etc., there is still hope that he will not leave empty-handed. All in all, it was a great competition. We heard some fabulous voices, and I can’t wait for the next one!

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