Since Then…

Yesterday at noon Ileana Montalbetti, currently appearing in the COC’s Götterdämmerung and pianist Rachel Andrist gave a recital in the RBA.  It was five years to the day since they last performed together in that space.  Then she was a promising young singer, now she comes over as a considerable interpretative artist.  The voice is even bigger (and for a piano recital in the small and not very friendly to dramatic sopranos RBA(*) that was a bit of a challenge) but what’s notable is how much more drama and meaning there is in each number.

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Next week and beyond

ileana-montalbetti-headshot-bohuang500pxThursday seems to be the big day next week.  Ileana Montalbetti and Rachel Andrist have a lunchtime recital in the RBA.  There’s Strauss and Mozart and Beethoven and more.  Ileana has been a really impressive Gutrune in Götterdämmerung so I’m excited to see her in recital.  That evening there’s a choice of the annual COC Ensemble Studio performance at the Four Seasons Centre where the Ensemble members will be offering staged scenes, with full orchestra, from Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, Bellini’s Norma and Handel’s Ariodante.  The alternative is Tapestry Songbook VII featuring Krisztina Szabó, Keith Klassen and Stephen Philcox performing numbers from Tapestry’s extensive back catalogue.  That’s at the Ernest Balmer Studio at 7.30pm.  There are repeat shows on Friday at 7.30pm and 10pm.  Looks like both 7.30pm shows are sold out but late night Friday is still available.  Operaramblings’ extensive spy network (not Louise Mensch) suggests that patrons may also learn something to their advantage.  The day before, Wednesday at 7.30pm, there’s a Don Giovanni in concert at Royal St. George’s Chapel. Actually seeing as how dancer Bill Coleman is involved it may not be entirely straight “in concert”.  The cast includes Alexander Dobson in the title role, Katherine Whyte, Colin Ainsworth, Taiya Kasahara, Vania Chan and Matthew Li plus a “special guest”.  Tickets at or on the door.  There is still time to catch the COC’s winter offerings.  The Magic Flute plays today, tomorrow and Friday with the last Götterdämmerung next Saturday.  That last seems to be sold out but the usual rush and standing room deals may apply.

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Last night the COC began its run of Götterdämmerung, the last and longest opera in Wagner’s epic tetralogy at The Four Seasons Centre.  It’s very different from Die Walküre and Siegfried.  The visual elements that tied them together; tottering Valhalla, disintegrating world ash, gantries, dancers, heaps of corpses are mostly gone.  In Tim Albery’s production the visuals are spare almost to abstraction.  The Gibichung Hall is a CEO suite with computer monitors and red couches, both Brünnhilde’s rock and the Rhinemaidens’ hang out look improvised, almost like squatters’ camps.  Costuming, apart from an occasional flashback, as in Waltraute’s scene, is severely modern business; grey suits, black dresses.  Only Siegfried himself in tee shirt and leather jacket stands out from the corporate crowd.  Dancing flames are replaced by red lights.  Everything that can be understated is and the world ends not with an overflowing Rhine and collapsing Valhalla but a stately pas de quatre between Brünnhilde and the Rhinemaidens.


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What harbour shelters peace?

Readers of this blog will likely know that Peter Grimes is a very special opera for me.  I’ve watched it live and on recordings a lot.  I think about it a lot troo so the chance to see it live is rather special.  It’s even more special when it’s done as well as at the Four Seasons Centre last night in the opening performance of a new run of Neil Armfield’s much travelled production, revived here by Denni Sayers.

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All the Grimes that’s fit to print

opusarteoabd7119dIt will come as no secret to regular readers that I am something of a Peter Grimes completist.  Until recently this blog was probably the only place one could find detailed reviews of all the available video recordings of that great work.  Now the recent La Scala production has been released on Blu-ray and I am no longer complete.  Fear not though, the disk is in the mail as they say and the divine order will shortly be restored.

In other Grimes news, the Aldeburgh Festival is staging the work on the beach.  The estimable Chris Gillett, Horace Adams both there and at La Scala, is blogging about it in his usual inimitable style.  In some ways I really wish I could go but I know that coast.  Even on a good day the wind will freeze one’s soft bits off. Definitely a challenging place to perform or even watch opera.  It’s also just off the A12 and I still have the after effects of 24 stitches on my face from a rather unfortunate encounter on that highway in my youth.  I shall patiently await Ben Heppner, Alan Held, Ileana Montalbetti et al at the Four Seasons Centre in the fall.

Tales of Hoffmann at Canadian Opera Company

Last night saw the third performance in the current run of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Canadian Opera Company.

It’s a peculiar work.  It was Offenbach’s first and only foray into grand opera and he didn’t live to complete it.  This leaves all sorts of performance issues regarding orchestration, sequence of the acts and spoken dialogue vs accompanied recitatives among others.  The COC version uses the conventional act order; Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta, and recitatives with orchestral accompaniment which makes for a long night but is probably the best fit with director Lee Blakeley’s take on the piece, previously seen at Vlaamse Opera in 2000.

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Farewell Ileana

Ileana at the Stella Maris competition

It’s that time of year again. With a few months left in the opera season in Toronto today saw the first “farewell” concert by a departing member of the COC Ensemble Studio. It was a solo recital by dramatic soprano Ileana Montalbetti, quite possibly the best sounding thing ever to come out of Saskatoon. Ileana is the only full on dramatic soprano I’ve seen in the few years I’ve been following the Ensemble Studio and, as ES boss Liz Upchurch pointed out, they are rare so it’s always interesting to see another one come along. Fair to say too, I think, that it’s not the voice type that is treated most kindly by a piano recital in a fairly intimate space. That said, it was a very enjoyable performance.

Ileana kicked off with O Sachs! Mein Freund! from Die Meistersinger. Any reservations I have about dramatic sopranos and piano recitals come redoubled in spades where “big” opera arias are concerned. The kind of volume and tone needed to sing against a large orchestra in a big theatre tends not to sound too lovely when throttled back with only a piano for support and, honestly, I don’t think this piece was a great idea.

Things improved enormously in the next section though. This was the song cycle Ekho Poeta; Pushkin texts set by Benjamin Britten and written for the Rostropoviches. It’s a rarity; a Britten song cycle I don’t recall hearing before, and it’s very good. It was a much better vehicle for Ileana who displayed plenty of power, well controlled vibrato and pleasing and varied tone colours especially in the middle register. Her high end was much sweeter here than in the Wagner too. Where she needed a lot of attack, as in the rather spiteful Epigramma she could certainly produce it. Being Britten, the piano part in these pieces was really quite demanding too so kudos to pianist Rachel Andrist for excellent and sympathetic musicianship.

The second half of the programme was all Strauss. It started with Arabella’s final aria, which I enjoyed more than the Wagner but about which I have similar reservations as a recital piece.  Then we got a selection of songs from Op. 37, Op. 48 and Op. 32 before finishing up with Zueignung from Op. 10. This was all good stuff with more excellent control and very good German diction. The final number was particularly lovely. For an encore we got a spirited rendering of Sweet Polly Oliver in the Britten setting.

I think Ileana is a very considerable talent and I’m sure she’ll do well in the wider operatic world.  Liz Upchurch and the COC certainly seem to think so.  Liz  “leaked” that Ileana will be back in an as yet unannounced major role. Putting two and two together and making something like e^iπ and adding in a dose of wishful thinking I’m wondering if there is any connection between Ileana’s first piece today and the long rumoured Toronto debut of a certain ex-pat Canadian baritone.

Also, à propos not much, it was nice to see a certain world famous dramatic soprano in sneakers and sans make up watching from the standing room section.


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.

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.

Quilico Awards

Last night we went to the Quilico Awards competition. The prize was set up in honour of Canadian baritone Louis Quilico to support various aspects of vocal competition and performance and it has been competed for and awarded in different ways over the years. This year it was a vocal competition featuring the ten young singers of the COC Ensemble Studio. It was held in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons centre and Alexander Neef (COC), David Spears (Opera Hamilton) and John Hess (Queen of Puddings Music Theatre) were the judges. It was a free gig but held at 5.30pm with minimal publicity on a week day so it perhaps wasn’t surprising that the audience was a bit thin. The format was that each singer prepared three arias. S/he sang one of his/her choice then the jury selected one of the other two. The third was held in reserve in case of a tie (which didn’t happen). Liz Upchurch was the accompanist throughout which was rather impressive in itself.

The standard was really very high. I’ve heard all these singers before, either in recital and/or on stage at the Four Seasons Centre. They are all good and getting better. Repertoire was quite varied. There was lots of Mozart (unsurprising since the Ensemble Studio’s last two productions have been Idomeneo and Die Zauberflöte) but we also got Barber, Purcell, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Handel, Verdi, Wagner, Floyd, Smetana, Korngold, Britten and Barber. Quite a variety really.

One of my top picks would have been Met bound Wallis Giunta (mezzo) who sang “Parto, parto” from La Clemenza di Tito which I’ve heard her do before and the very different “Nobles seigneurs, salut!” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Wallis’ musicality (as well as technical ability) was very evident in the way she tackled the tricky rhythmic flexibility of the piece. (You can check out what I mean about tricky rhythms here).

The other would have been baritone Adrian Kramer who goes from strength to strength. He gave us “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt and what has rather become his party piece, Sid’s aria “Tickling a trout” from Britten’s Albert Herring. Watch out for this guy. He has a very good voice and wicked comic timing but showed he also has a lyrical side in the Korngold.

Had I been a judge I would have found picking a third winner close to impossible. There was so much to like. So what did the judges decide?

In third place they had tenor Chris Enns (a fine Tamino earlier this season). Last night he gave us Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin and “Here I Stand” from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. I particularly liked the Tchaikovsky which showed off a nicely developing lyrical tenor voice very well.

Second was dramatic soprano Ilieana Montalbetti. Ileana is a bit of an anomaly. The other girls in the programme are your modern lyric, look the part, sort of modern soprano/mezzos (one of them moonlights as a fashion model). Ileana is the one truly dramatic voice and can we say she looks a bit more like the popular image of a dramatic soprano (actually she’s not really that big but…). She gave us “Come in quest’ora bruna” from Simon Boccanegra and “Einsam in trüben Tagen” from Lohengrin. The RBA is not a huge space and it was piano accompaniment so I don’t think she was close to maximum power (I’ve heard her sing much louder!) but the impression of lots of gas in the tank was definitely there along with a good deal of control and attractive tone colour.

The winner was Adrian Kramer. No surprise there.

Fortunately for us we will get to see most of these singers next month on stage in various roles. Ambur Braid is singing Amore in Orfeo ed Euridice, where Simone Osborne is understudying Isabel Bayrakdarian’s Euridice. Rihab Chaleb will sing Tisbe and Ileana will sing Clorinda in La Cenerentola. Ariadne auf Naxos has a slew of Ensemble Studio members in the cast. Simone Osborne sings Naiad, Adrian Kramer is the Wigmaker, Chris Enns is Scaramuchio and Michael Uloth is Truffaldino and it seems like everyone is understudying something!

There are good things in Toronto. How many places can you see ten first rate singers perform for two hours in a beautiful, acoustically excellent setting, for free?