At lunchtime today, in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Jacqueline Woodley gave her final recital as a member of the COC Studio Ensemble. In the two years she has been in the programme Jacqueline has given me maybe more pleasure than any other Ensemble Studio singer (stop sniggering at the back). What’s become clear in that time is that she’s an exceptional talent when it comes to interpreting difficult modern and contemporary music. Realistically I doubt we’ll see her sing Verdi at La Scala but few people who do that could do what Jacquie does with works by composers like Golijov, Saariaho and Sokolovic. Perhaps no surprise then that she chose a recital programme that was 100% art song. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.