Last night, for the second time (the first was in 2011) the singers of the COC Ensemble Studio competed for the Christina and Louis Quilico Awards; a prize competition created by Christina in memory of her husband, baritone Louis. It was the usual competition format; the singers offer three arias, they sing one and then the judges choose which of the remaining two they will sing. It being the Ensemble Studio on show the standard was extremely high. Nine singers and eighteen arias is too much to report in detail so I’ll concentrate on the winners.
In third place was Ambur Braid. She gave us a very decent version of “Regarde-les, ces yeux” from Massenet’s (as she put it) “ever popular” Esclarmonde and then followed it up with a “Sempre libera” for which my quick note was “wow!”. It was just what one might expect from Ambur; drama, passion and interpolated high notes. This lady lives above the stave! She’s singing Violetta for Arizona Opera next March and I would love to see it. Expect a unique take on the role!
Second place went to Claire de Sévigné who gave an appropriately pretty reading of “Ah! Douce enfant” from Massenet’s Cendrillon (has Gianmarco Segato been bribing people to do Massenet?) and an elegantly ornamented “Non disperare” from Giulio Cesare. It was a thoroughly polished lyric soprano performance of the kind that tends to win competitions.
Then we got the first real surprise of the night. There were two first place winners! In this case Neil Craighead and Rihab Chaieb. Rihab gave us “Wie du warst” from Rosenkavalier and a really lovely performance of the haunting “Must the winter come so soon” from Barber’s Vanessa. I’ve been listening to Rihab fairly regularly for about three years now and she really is beginning to blossom. The genuine dark mezzo tone colour has always been there and now it’s married to real power.
Neil, too, has developed a lot since I first heard him. The voice is rock solid and he’s gained a lot of confidence and become a very polished actor/singer. Last night he sang “O tu, Palermo” from I vespri siciliani, which really suited his voice, and “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”. I’m less sure about Neil and Mozart. It’s such a crowded field and, while he’s powerful and technically sound, he doesn’t have the prettiest voice. I suspect he’ll really come into his own as he grows into heavier repertoire. He’d make a very imposing Wotan!
Judging these competitions must be really tough. I was sitting with a couple of Toronto’s better known opera writers and, when we compared notes, we all had different names. The only one we agreed on was Ambur I think. My 1-2-3 were all in the prizes though!
Rihab, Neil and Ambur will be leaving the Ensemble Studio at the end of this season but I’m sure we’ll see more of them in Toronto and elsewhere. I certainly hope so. It was a most enjoyable couple of hours thanks to all the singers involved, accompanists Jenna Douglas and Timothy Cheung and, of course, Ms. Quilico for creating the opportunity.
Photo credits: Chris Hutcheson