Today’s lunch time concert in the RBA was a lieder recital by two Ensemble Studio members; bass-baritone Gordon Bintner and tenor Andrew Haji. Both singers sang settings of texts by Heinrich Heine. Bintner, accompanied by Jennifer Szeto kicked off with selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang to be followed by Haji and Liz Upchurch with Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
Today saw the annual lunchtime concert in the RBA in which members of the COC Ensemble Studio collaborate with visitors from the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal. There were three singers from each program but rather unusually only one of them was female; soprano France Bellemare. Naturally I was rather focussed on the visiting singers as the three Toronto participants; Gordon Bintner, Clarence Frazer and Andrew Haji are very much known quantities. Of the visitors it was very much Ms. Bellemare who shone. She has a very accurate, lovely rich voice with perhaps still some work to do on the top of her range but very easy to listen to and she’s musically and dramatically convincing too. Her version of Micaëla’s Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante was very competent though I’m not sure it’s ideal rep for her. The Song to the Moon from Rusalka though fitted her like a glove. This was really lovely singing. She also did very well in duet with Clarence Frazer in Lippen schweigen from Die Lustige Witwe or The Merry Widow or La Veuve Joyeuse as all three languages were used! She can waltz too though perhaps not as well as Clarence. Ladies, if you need a dance partner consider Mr. Frazer. She also shone in the final number; the Libiamo from La Traviata. I confess when I saw the program and saw that she would be partnered by Andrew Haji I rather expected her to be sung off the stage. She wasn’t. She held her own with a tenor who will sing this role on the COC’s main stage next season. No mean feat. This young lady is definitely one to watch.
Last night in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre the singers of the COC Ensemble Studio competed for the Quilico awards for the third time in this format. Owen McAusland was off singing in Lucia di Lammermoor in Victoria and Andrew Haji was down with the flu so seven singers actually sang. As usual the standard was very high and it can’t have been easy for the judges. Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure and Ian MacNeil had a bit of an off night but that left five singers who I has extremely close on my notes. No permutation of three from five would have particularly surprised me.
Last night, at Roy Thomson Hall, the TSO presented a two part Mozart program. The first half consisted of pieces from two abandoned opera projects; the buffa Lo sposo deluso and the Singspiel Zaide. The second half consisted of the better known, but incomplete, Mass in C Minor.
I only managed to get to the first half of yesterday’s Ensemble Studio lunchtime concert. It was Brahm’s Liebeslieder-Walzer Op. 52 performed by Claire de Sévigné, Charlotte Burrage, Andrew Haji and Gordon Bintner with Liz Upchurch and Michael Shannon providing the four handed accompaniment. I’m not a huge Brahms fan and this was pretty much that late 19th century sentimental stuff I don’t really get; somewhat schmaltzy waltz rhythms setting somewhat schmaltzy texts. It was well done though. Haji, in particular, sang with a fine attack and the different voice combinations made interesting contrasts. I thought the music came off best when the girls sang together and when the guys sang together. Both pairs have voices quite different in timbre and blended to good effect. The more complex four voice sections seemed to come a bit unstuck in the RBA. I’m 99% sure it was the acoustic not the singers but certainly textures got quite muddy at times. The accompaniment was, unsurprisingly, very good indeed. Work pressures meant I had to leave before the second half of the programme which featured John Greer’s Liebesleid-Lieder.
Once a year the COC Ensemble Studio get to show their talents on the big stage with a fully staged performance of a current production. This year’s choice of Atom Egoyan’s production of Così fan tutte was a good one. It showcased the talents of the singers really well and by using a different quartet of lovers in each act they were able to provide substantive roles for all the singers of the ensemble. I won’t dwell on the production as I have already reviewed it. The only changes I noted were a few change ups on the visual gags and that the “Albanians” kept their disguises on for quite a lot longer than with the main cast. So, how about the performances?
Today’s lunchtime concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre featured members of the COC Studio Ensemble performing extracts from Act 1 of Così fan tutte as a teaser for their performance of Atom Egoyan’s production on February 7th. This promises to beeven more confusing than usual as the young lover roles are all being shared to accommodate everyone. Today, Clraence Frazer and Danielle MacMillan being sick we had but one Guglielmo, Cameron McPhail, and one Dorabella, Charlotte Burrage. Andrew Haji and Owen McAusland alternated as Ferrando and Sasha Djihanian and Aviva Fortunata doubled Fiordiligi (those two, at least, are easy to tell apart). Gordon Bintner sang Don Alphonso and Claire de Sévigné played Despina.
Yesterday’s free concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre saw four members of the Ensemble Studio singing contrasting works by Benjamin Britten. First up was bass-baritone Gordon Bintner with excerpts from Tit for Tat; settings of works by Walter de la Mare. These were full blooded performances and Bintner gave full reign to his powerful and flexible voice. It’s a terrific instrument but I would have preferred a little more restraint and subtlety, especially in something as intimate as these pieces. Next up was tenor Andrew Haji with excerpts from Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. It was rather a similar story. He has a fine, operatic voice and gave the songs a rather operatic treatment. It was good singing but not in the idiom one is accustomed to hearing this music sung in.
Yesterday saw the first of this season’s free concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. As has become the norm it featured the singers of the COC’s Ensemble Studio. This year it was dedicated to the memory of the late Lotfi Mansouri and included a couple of short tributes to him.
Six of the Ensemble’s singers are new this year, as is the sole pianist, so these were mostly singers I haven’t heard a lot of. I’ve also observed how much members of the Ensemble Studio develop in the programme and last year we had a solid group of third years with a few new entrants. The balance has shifted to the other extreme and so no surprise that yesterday we heard more potential than polish.
The COC today announced six new singers will join the Ensemble Studio for the 2013/14 season. If you read my review of the Ensemble Studio competition in November you’ll not be surprised. The three prize winners; bass-baritone Gordon Bintner, tenor Andrew Haji and mezzo Charlotte Burrage are among the six as is my pick, dramatic soprano Aviva Fortunata. The remaining two are baritone Clarence Frazer and mezzo Danielle MacMillan who were also quite impressive in the competition.
The Ensemble Studio is losing Mireille Asselin, Neil Craighead, Rihab Chaieb, Chris Enns and Ambur Braid as well as both pianists; Timothy Cheung and Jenna Douglas, at the end of this season though all of them can be seen in some capacity in La Clemenza di Tito next month. Rihab is also appearing in Dialogues of the Carmelites in the spring. There’s no word on new non-singing talent for Ensemble. I’m going to be really interested to see what’s next for these guys. We’ve had some good times together.