Opera Atelier opened their 30th season last night with Lully’s Armide. It’s hard to think of a work that better encapsulates what Opera Atelier is and has always aspired to be. It’s French, it’s 17th century and it’s heavily dependent on ballet, and ballet of an aesthetic that pretty much defines Opera Atelier. The whole Opera Atelier aesthetic package is there in spades. Bare chested male dancers in tights that leave little to the imagination, heaving bosoms, ladies twirling prettily in full skirts, castanets and finger cymbals, chorus singing off stage, camp “baroque” acting, tight buttocked homoeroticism, singers cast as much for eye candy value as vocals, a tendency to play for laughs,Tafelmusik. To be fair, there were a few innovations. I think I heard a more “realistic” vocal style. The singers were prepared to make ugly sounds when the emotional context demanded it, rather than an endless flow of prettiness. The homoeroticism got a BDSM twist in Act 3. Still, this was very much “by the book” Opera Atelier and if that’s your bag you’ll love it.
Opera Atelier has announced its plans for the 2015/16 season. As seems to have become the norm, the Toronto season will feature one new (to Toronto anyway) production and one remount. The new piece will be Mozart’s little seen Lucio Silla which played at last year’s Salzburg Festival( with a considerably starrier cast) and which is headed for La Scala in a few weeks time. The title role will be sung by Kresimir Spicer, alongside Inga Kalna (Cinna), Mireille Asselin (Celia), Peggy Kriha Dye (Cecillio) and Meghan Lindsay (Giunia). David Fallis and Tafelmusik will be in the pit. There will be six performances as follows; April 7th, 9th, 10th (3:00pm), 12th, 15th, and 16th (4:30pm), 2016 (start times 7:30 pm except where noted). FWIW here’s a review of the Salzburg production.
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.
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.
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.
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.