Poetic Echoes: A Britten Celebration

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.

Photo: Karen Reeves

Photo: Karen Reeves

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Quilico Awards 2013

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.


Alan Walker of the Ontario Arts Foundation, Christina Quilico and the Ensemble Studio

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Sérénade Française

John Terauds may have proclaimed the death of the art song recital in Toronto, and he may even have a point about recitals with high ticket prices, but the line up outside the Four Seasons Centre yesterday for a recital of French chansons rather suggests that the taste for the form has not gone away.  The admirably chosen programme of songs, mainly by Poulenc with some Ravel and Milhaud thrown in, was performed by members of the COC’s Ensemble Studio.

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Upcoming events

sellarsThere a couple or three things coming up in Toronto that might be of interest to readers.

On Sunday 27th January at 2pm Russell Braun and Rihab Chaieb are giving a recital of German songs in the Glenn Gould Studio.  Tickets are $60 but only $25 for under 25s.

The following evening Peter Sellars is giving a talk on his production of Tristan und Isolde at the Toronto Reference Library.  This one is free but ticketed.  Tickets are available from the TPL website.

And in free RBA noon concert news, on 24th January Sasha Djihanian and Cameron McPhail with pianists Timothy Cheung and Jenna Douglas are offering up Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées and Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

New additions to the COC Ensemble Studio

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.

Full COC Press Release


virginiaIt’s pretty Grimm in Toronto these days.  Friday will see the 500th performance of Dean Burry’s 1999 opera for children The Brothers Grimm.  Now, 500 performances for any recent opera is pretty remarkable.  500 performances for a Canadian work is extraordinary.  Anyway, in the lead up to Friday there are a number of events scheduled including a concert yesterday lunchtime in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre with a Grimm theme.

Eric Domville introduced the music.  He gave us a disquisition on the Grimm brothers, philology, the Great German Dictionary, folk tales and the oral tradition, his childhood, Romanticism as a reaction to Enlightenment, the plot of several folk tales in their English, French and German incarnations and a potted summary of the cultural, political and religious state of Germany in the mid 19th century.  It was perhaps just a teeny bit more than one resally needed to explain three arias from Hansel and Gretel and one from Königskinder.  Continue reading

The review – COC Studio Ensemble in concert

(front row, l-r): Ambur Braid and Cameron McPhail; (second row, l-r): Jenna Douglas, Claire de Sévigné and Mireille Asselin; (third row, l-r): Neil Craighead, Owen McCausland and Sasha Djihanian; (fourth row, l-r): Rihab Chaieb and Timothy Cheung. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

So, as promised here are my thoughts on yesterday’s Ensemble Studio recital at the Four Seasons Centre.  It’s always interesting to see the Ensemble Studio together; to see how returning members have developed since last heard and to hear the newcomers.  This is what we got.
Soprano Claire de Sévigné gave us “Chacun le sait” from La fille du régiment.  It’s a good piece for a young singer and shee sang it with spirit and enthusiasm and acted with gusto.  Perfectly idiomatic French too of course.  She has a lovely voice and is clearly one to watch.

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Each year the Studio Ensemble at the Canadian Opera Company does an exchange with its counterpart the Atelier Lyrique de’l’Opéra de Montréal. Part of this collaboration is a free concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre featuring singers from both companies. Last year I found it quite hard to write about as, frankly, Montreal didn’t bring much to the party. This year, happily, was different.

Philip Kalmanovitch

Two of the Montreal singers really impressed me this time. Philip Kalmanovitch is a tall, slim baritone with an engaging stage manner and a very nice voice indeed. He kicked off the programme with the Largo al factotum from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. I would not have thought it possible to overact this piece but Kalmanovitch came close! It was very characterful, well sung and he communicated that he was having fun very effectively. We also got a characterful Là ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni sung with Jacqueline Woodley. Their voices blended very well and the acting was good too. His final piece was the much more romantic Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. He didn’t seem quite as at home in this repertoire and he could use some work on shaping his lines but, again, he sang with beautiful tone and the closing pianissimo was very well done.

Emma Parkinson

I was just as impressed by mezzo-soprano Emma Parkinson. She has a lovely smoky voice of some power. In her first number, Come ti piace, imponi from La clemenza di Tito she was singing with the Studio Ensemble’s biggest voice, soprano Ileana Montalbetti. I was worried going in that she’d be blown away (probably literally) but it wasn’t so. They actually worked very well together. Emma and Ileana collaborated again with the addition of baritone Philippe Sly in Soave sia il vento from Cosi fan tutte. This wasn’t so successful. Even when she’s throttling back, Ileana has a distinct ‘slice’ which doesn’t really suit a Mozart number like this and the voices didn’t really blend. I really want to hear what she can do with an orchestra in a genuine spinto role. Also, Philippe sang well enough but it’s going to be a long, long time before he sings Don Alfonso.  Getting back to Emma, she also sang a spirited Parto, parto, agian from La Clemenza di Tito. This was the real deal and raised hairs on the back of my neck. There was power, passion and variation of tone colour. Her coloratura was a bit ragged in places but that will come. Ms. Parkinson is one to watch.

Aidan Ferguson

The Montreal contingent was rounded out by mezzo Aidan Ferguson and tenor Isaiah Bell. Ferguson sang Va! laisse couler mes larmes from Massenet’s Werther, Sein wir wieder gut from Strauss’Ariadne auf Naxos and collaborated with Mireille Asselin in the Presentation of the Rose from Der Rosenkavalier. She and Jacqueline Woodley also sang a very musical version of Belle nuit, ȏ nuit d’amour from Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. Ferguson is musical, she’s got plenty of power and was markedly better in the Strauss and Offenbach pieces than in the Massenet where she was a bit wobbly. She just doesn’t sound like a mezzo to me. The voice is very bright and open and I wonder whether she won’t end up as a dramatic soprano.


Bell seems very young. He started out with a very diffident Unis dès la plus tendre l’enfance from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. He sounded a bit underpowered and undercharacterised. He was better in the duet My Tale Shall be Told from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (sung with Philippe Sly as a characterful Nick Shadow) where he showed he could convey some real feeling. He finished up with Si, ritrovaria io giuro from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. This really needed more power. he has the notes but he doesn’t have the exciting, ringing top end needed to bring a piece like this to life. He is very young though and with a bit more power and confidence could be quite promising.

The Toronto singers were really in back up roles in this gig but they all performed very well. Mireille Asselin showed she has the classic qualities of a young lyric soprano in her cameo as Sophie and Jacqueline Woodley was excellent in the Offenbach though to be honest I’d much rather hear her singing Weir, Golijov or Saariaho where she truly excels.  Philippe and Ileana I’ve already mentioned.   Accompaniment on the piano was by the Studio Ensemble’s Jenna Douglas and Timothy Cheung who were, as ever, just excellent.

All in all, a very worthwhile effort all round.

Another lunchtime with Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho

Today’s concert in the RBA consisted of more works by Saariaho performed by members of the COC orchestra and the Studio Ensemble. Both the the composer and General Director, Alexander Neef, were there. The four works performed were most definitely not “easy listening”. To me they seemed firmly in the tradition of modern continental European composition in the same sort of mould as Henze or Berio. The pieces were all very dense with complex tonality and dissonance and placing great demands on the performers.



Jacqueline Woodley - Photo by Helen Tansey

First up was Changing Light described by the composer as a dialogue between soprano and violin. It’s a setting of a text by Rabbi Jules Harlow and was commissioned in the wake of 9/11. It may be a dialogue but the instrument doesn’t support the singer in any way. The violin is in a world of comples slides while the singer has some very tough intervals and the sustained, loud, high notes that characterize much of Saariaho’s vocal writing. That said in some ways this was the most conventional and accessible piece on the program. The performance by soprano Jacqueline Woodley and violinist Marie Bérard was first rate.

Mireille Asselin

Next came Mirage. This a setting for soprano, piano and cello of an English translation of a text from Mazatec healer and shaman Maria Sabina. It’s a rewriting of a piece originally written for soprano, cello and orchestra. The composer described this version as “more intimate”. It’s an uncompromising piece. Much of the piano part is played directly on the strings (rather than the keys) and the keyboard part is furiously virtuosic. The cello part is no easier with complex slides and atonality. The writing for soprano demands some characteristically difficult singing with something akin to Sprechstimme and some phrases that are whispered into the piano, using the piano as a reflector/amplifier. It’s quite a compelling piece. Again the performance was excellent. Jenna Douglas was on piano with Olga Laktionova on cello and Mireille Asselin singing.

The third piece seemed to me even more demanding. Lonh is a longish setting for soprano with electronic tape of fragments of medieval Occitan poetry by Jaufré Rudel. It requires an array of vocal techniques; singing, semi-singing, modulated speech, whispers, the works really. It’s quite haunting and the electronic tape which combines nature noises, bird sounds and fragments of spoken Occitan is very atmospheric. This was another fine performance by Jacqueline Woodley. We were told that this was composed as a “study” during the process of conceiving L’Amour du Loin so I guess it serves as an introduction to that sound universe.

Rihab Chaieb

The final piece was an early work for mezzo and soprano; From the Grammar of Dreams to texts by Sylvia Plath. It was described as “tenser” by the composer and to my ear sounded most influenced by the fashionable idiom of the 1960s and 1970s. It uses just about every vocal technique in the book and interweaves fragments of two different Plath poems; Paralytic and The Bell Jar. The composer tells us that dreams are “non linear” and that’s certainly reflected in the piece. Rihab Chaieb and Mireille Asselin were the singers and I thought their voices blended really well. The mix of Mireille’s very bright soprano with Rihab’s much darker tone was very pleasing.

I was really impressed with everyone on show today. It’s hard to express in words just how difficult this music is to perform. Here we had young singers and, I think, equally young instrumentalists putting on a truly impressive show. In particular, I was intrigued to see how much Mireille has come on. I first heard her sing a couple of Servilia’s arias from La Clemenza di Tito and my impression was of a perfectly competent light lyric soprano but nothing special. The last couple of times I have heard her she seems to have grown quite a bit musically and her performances today were top notch.

COC Ensemble Studio – Works by female composers

It feels good to be back listening to live music after a bit of a drought. Today I was at a lunchtime recital in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre given by members of the Canadian Opera Company Studio Ensemble. It was very good indeed. I want to start with the undoubted highlight; Jacqueline Woodley‘s performance of Judith Weir’s piece for unaccompanied soprano, King Harald’s Saga. It’s a complex, fascinating and very difficult piece requiring the singer to switch between voices and to pull off a range of singing styles. Woodley was awesome. I’ve heard her now in quite a few contemporary pieces, though perhaps none as hard as this, and she has always impressed.

Almost as impressive was Ileana Montalbetti’s performance of Libby Larsen’s Donal Oge. It’s a work that requires considerable power from the singer and Ileana, unsurprisingly delivered. She’s got a big voice and she knows how to use it. Neil Craighead gave us two songs by Cecile Chaminade. He sounds a good deal more powerful than last time I heard him. He has a lovely tone and now the power too. He hasn’t quite got the knack of throttling it back yet but that will come I expect. We also got some fiendishly difficult Alma Mahler songs which clearly taxed tenor Chris Enns. They would have taxed anyone I think. Mireille Asselin gave a pleasing unaccompanied performance of a piece from Hildegard von Bingen and the programme was rounded out by two duets by Fanny Hensel sung by Asselin and Craighead and Montalbetti and Enns.

The pianists were the excellent Jenna Douglas and the even more impressive Timothy Cheung. All in all, this was as good a concert as I have heard in the COC’s free lunchtime series.