Last night saw the latest evolution of the COC’s Ensemble Studio competition; a competition for cash prizes functioning as well as final auditions for next year’s Ensemble Studio. This year, for the first time, it was packaged as Centre Stage; a gala event featuring a cocktail reception and black tie dinner as well as the competition itself. Added to that, the singers got to perform with the COC orchestra under Johannes Debus on the main stage rather than in the RBA with piano accompaniment.
It was an interesting experience. The first half of the competition took place in front of the judges and a handful of invited guests, of whom I was fortunate to be one. We emerged from that, slightly subdued, process to the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre which was rapidly filling with a very dressy, indeed glamorous, and for the opera, youngish crowd. There was plenty of time to schmooze and stock up on wine and charcuterie before the competition resumed. The atmosphere in the second half was quite different. The theatre was maybe half full; orchestra and Grand Tier pretty much packed, and the audience was lively; a quality that only increased when Rufus Wainwright emerged to do an amusingly quirky MC performance. Full marks for his French and German; not so much for his Italian. Following the singers Mr. Wainwright performed a few numbers with the COC Orchestra which is surely a first.
So, how was the singing? It was solid and of a rather even standard which can’t have made life easy for the judges. That said, unlike last year, I really didn’t think I was seeing any future stars of the opera stage. Some of my colleagues disagreed and were of the view that competition winner Karine Boucher had that kind of potential. Time will tell I guess.
My personal favourites were mezzo Emma Char who sang a competent Voi che sapete and a better than competent Parto, parto. Maybe she got marked down for not showing enough variety? I also liked soprano Lara Secord-Haid but will concede that she sounded much better singing Oscar’s music from Ballo than her earlier aria from Entführung. My third and fourth picks would have been another mezzo, Rachel Wood and bass-baritone Iain McNeil who showed a fair bit of oomph in his all Mozart offering. The judges at least agreed with me on this last awarding him the third prize.
Second prize went to tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure who has a pleasant, if lightish, voice and sang a very idiomatic Vainement ma bien aimée from Le roi d’Ys in the first half. In the second half he sang Quanto e bella and got into some trouble. Maybe the judges were basing their scoring partly on what they heard in the rehearsal process?
So what of Karine Boucher; the first prize winner and overwhelming Audience Choice prize winner? She has a good voice. It’s very mature sounding and I suspect she is older than most of the competitors. But it’s also very much a lyric voice and that’s a very crowded space. In the first half she sang a very good Marietta’s Lied but in the second she chose Piangèro from Giulio Cesare. I haven’t heard Handel performed like that in years. It was very heavy. It’s the sort of Handel one expects from listening to old records of Malcolm Sargent with the Huddersfield Choral Society. It even put me in mind of my recording of Flagstad singing Dido and Aeneas. Still, both audience and judges lapped it up. Chacun à son gout. No doubt Ms. Boucher will be offered a place in the Ensemble Studio so I will have plenty of opportunities to revise my opinion (or not!).
After all this the glitterati continued the festivities with a $1500/plate black tie dinner on the Four Seasons Centre stage while the rest of us hit the subway home.
I think the COC have a winner with this format. I would like to see some tweaks in the competition itself though. Especially I’d like to see more variety in the material offered. 8/18 offerings being Mozart seems excessive. And if I hear one more Marietta’s Lied in a singing competition I shall scream.
All photo credits – Michael Cooper