Lunchtime saw the annual concert featuring visiting members of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal. It turned into something of a Donizettifest. First up was soprano Cécile Muhire with Adina’s aria Prendi, per me sei libero. This was quite competently sung though she seemed very nervous. The nerves seemed to vanish though when she was joined by her Nemorino, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, for the duet when he tries the elixir. One of the things that has always struck me about the Ensemble Studio is how quickly it teaches singers to have stage presence. J-P was a very funny, rather drunk, Nemorino and his swagger seemed to rub off on Cécile who looked much more at home in this number.
I caught the second performance of the current run of Carmen at the COC this afternoon. It’s a revival of the production previously seen in 2010 but with, we are told, debuting director Joel Ivany being given some freedom to change things up a bit. Obviously he was mostly constrained to use the existing sets and costumes which, for reasons that escape me, transplants the piece to 1940s Cuba which was, as far as I know, markedly short of both gypsies and bull fights but there you go. Actually it matters scarcely at all because both sets and costumes are generic scruffy Hispanic and could be anywhere from Leon to Lima. For the first two acts too the blocking and Personenregie is pretty standard too. It’s all really down to the chemistry between the singers and the quality of the acting and neither is anything to write home about. It says a lot when Frasquita is scene stealing. Fortunately it livens up a lot after the interval. The third act is atmospheric and Micaëla’s aria is deeply touching and for the first time I felt genuine emotion. It gets even better after that with a really effective use of the whole auditorium for the parade which had much of the audience clapping along and a clever stage set up for the crowd during the final confrontation scene. I don’t think it’s a production for the ages but it’s better than merely serviceable and I’ve seen much worse Carmens. And, frankly, it’s simply not realistic to expect one of the season’s cash cows to push the envelope very far.
Ensemble Studio tenors, like saints’ noses, only seem to come in multipacks these days. There are four of them until the end of the season and today they were all on show in the RBA. It was clearly a popular move as the good folks were lined up outside almost to Richmond Street before the doors opened and they didn’t all get in. Maybe it was the beards. Are bearded tenors the new black? The program was fairly predictable. Andrew Haji , Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure and Aaron Sheppard each gave us a well known and popular aria, with two from Charles Sy, before we got to the inevitable arrangements for four voices of three Neapolitan songs and, of course, the encores.
Once a season the young artists of the COC’s Ensemble Studio get to perform one of the company’s productions on the main stage of the Four Seasons Centre. Last night it was the Claus Guth production of The Marriage of Figaro. I’ve said enough about the production already here and here so let’s cut to the chase.
Today’s lunchtime concert in the RBA involved members of the cast of the Ensemble Studio performance of Marriage of Figaro in a semi-staged series of excerpts from the opera. The Ensemble Studio annual stage performance is always worth seeing and this year I think it’s going to be a real treat. Highlights today included Gordon Bintner’s Count. The guy can sing but here there was a swagger that should be just perfect for the Guth production. Jacquie Woodley’s Cherubino was utterly brilliant. Aviva Fortunata nailed Porgi amor, so often a disappointment I find. And I really liked Karine Boucher’s Susanna. She’s not always been a favourite of mine but her slightly dark for a soprano tone seemed really well suited to this music and blended especially well with Aviva. Ian MacNeil impressed too as Figaro, though it’s a role that’s a bit downplayed by this production, and I shall be curious to see what he does with it in the full version. Megan Latham, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure and Aaron Sheppard rounded out today’s cast with the indefatigable Hyejin Kwon on piano. If you don’t yet have tickets for the performance on the 22nd I strongly suggest getting some. They are only $22 or $55 for the best seats. As Claire Morley said in her introduction this could be an event that’s talked of for years to come.
Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, first seen at Salzburg in 2006, opened last night at the COC. I was curious to see how it would be received because, while by no means an extreme production by European standards, it’s well beyond the 1970s aesthetic beloved by sections of the Toronto audience. The aesthetic is Northern European; a Strindberg play or a Bergmann film perhaps. It’s monochromatic, quite slow and focusses on the darker side of the characters’ psyches. It’s the antithesis of Figaro as Feydeau farce. There’s also a non-canonical character, Cherubim. He’s a winged doppelganger of Cherubino and seems to be a cross between Cupid and Puck. Pretty much omnipresent he manipulates scenes and characters though with a power that falls well short of absolute. Perhaps the whole production is best summed up in the final ensemble. Cherubim visits each couple in turn and is brusquely rejected. Only Cherubino is still subject to his power and that seems to have become destructive. Perhaps the message is “Now we are married forget this love nonsense and let us get back to our drab lives of quiet despair”.
Yesterday saw the first free concert of the season in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. It was a chance to see the 2015/16 Ensemble Studio; two new singers, one new pianist and six singers and a pianist from last year. The format was one aria per singer with few surprises. We also got to hear the core quartet casting for the Ensemble Studio performance of Le Nozze di Figaro later in the season. No surprises there either; Il Conte – Gordon Bintner, Iain MacNeil – Figaro, La Contessa – Aviva Fortunata, Susanna – Karine Boucher. That leaves four tenors for the other roles…
The Ensemble Studio got to do their thing last night with their annual main stage performance; this year, of course, Joan Font’s production of The Barber of Seville. This year only one role was split; Andrew Haji singing Almaviva in Act 1 with Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure coming off the bench for the second half. The other main roles went to Clarence Frazer as Figaro, Charlott Burrage as Rosina, Iain McNeil as Doctor Bartolo, Gordon Bintner as Don Basilio and Karine Boucher as Berta. Ringer Jan Vaculik sang both Fiorello and the Officer.
Yesterday lunchtime the Ensemble Studio gave us a preview of their upcoming performance of the Barber of Seville. The production, of course, will be the one currently on stage at the Four Seasons Centre and there were clear echoes of that in the way yesterday’s event was put on though they also played with the fact that Almaviva will be split between Andrew Haji and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure with much pulling and pushing into place.
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.
Iain MacNeil, Aviva Fortunata, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, Karine Boucher, Clarence Frazer, Charlotte Burrage, Gordon Bintner, Jennifer Szeto and Michael Shannon