‘Tis the season to Hallelujah in Toronto and Handel’s Messiah is everywhere. Last night was the first performance of the biggest of them all, the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir at Roy Thomson Hall. Traditionally this is Toronto’s equivalent of John Barbirolli and the Huddersfield Choral Society so I was surprised to see a set up for a rather small orchestra. In fact about thirty instrumentalists were used, playing modern instruments of course, with about 150 choristers. It was something of a sign of things to come as conductor Grant Llewellyn took us through the piece quite briskly and rhythmically with even some ornamentation in the da capo repeats. It’s becoming more common I think for conductors to get something approaching an HIP sound out of a modern orchestra as we’ve seen with Harry Bicket in various opera houses. The orchestra and chorus responded pretty well to the less staid approach with the sopranos sounding particularly spritely and incisive.
Up and coming Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly was joined last night by veteran collaborative pianist Julius Drake for a program of chansons and lieder at Walter Hall. The 490 seat hall was almost full which is rather nice to see for a song recital in Toronto. The first half was devoted to chansons by Duparc, Ropartz and Ravel. I was struck by the restraint of Sly’s singing. It was conversational and not operatic at all but very expressive. I think that takes a lot of guts in a young singer. He let the words and music do the talking and didn’t exaggerate. This was perhaps best shown in the drinking song from the Don Quichotte songs of Ravel. He was very funny but sounded like a drunk, not somebody overacting the idea of a drunk. Continue reading
Opera/concert season is pretty much done in the big smoke though there is the Toronto Summer Music Festival (see below). Attention moves to various more rural venues and to some seriously eclectic programming. Out in Northumberland County there’s the Westben Festival with concerts in a barn ranging fro Irish trad to Richard Margison. The highlight, for me, here would be a recital by Suzy Leblanc and Julius Drake featuring French mélodies, Strauss lieder and English songs by Christos Hatzis. That one is on July 30. Westben also has the UBC Opera Ensemble doing Carmen and, for those so inclined, a programme of Broadway tunes from the ever reliable Virginia Hatfield, Brett Polegato and James Levesque. No word on whether Brett’s cat is also performing.
Meanwhile, back in the smoke there is the Toronto Summer Music Festival which kicks off on July 16th with the Trio Pennetier Pasquier Pidoux in an all French programme. The highlights for me are the Gryphon Trio with Bob Pomakov on the 18th and Philippe Sly with Julius Drake on the 23rd.
Last night saw the annual main stage performance by the COC’s young artist programme, the Ensemble Studio. This year it was Handel’s Semele in the production which I saw a couple of weeks ago. The main roles were cast from the Ensemble Studio with the the exception of the countertenor role of Athamas which was played by Ryan Belongie, an Adler Fellow. The title role was split with Mireille Asselin singing the first two acts and Ambur Braid coming in for the third act. This seemed like a sensible solution given the size of the role and the two singers’ strengths. Continue reading
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.