La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 21 April 2011

COC Ensemble Artists Shine in Quilico Competition

Top: Contestants and Liz Upchurch, director of the COC Ensemble Studio
Second from Top: Judging Panel (l. to r. Alexander Neef, John Hess, David Speers)
Third from Top: Christina Petrowska-Quilico and Alan Walker
Bottom: Three Winners (l. to r. Adrian Kramer, Ileana Montalbetti, Chris Enns)

Christina and Louis Quilico Awards
featuring artists of the COC Ensemble Studio

by Joseph K. So

Wednesday, April 20, 2011
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Toronto, ON

Liz Upchurch, piano

Ambur Braid, soprano
"O zittre nicht" - Die Zauberfloete
"What is he thinking of...who is there to love me?" - A Hand of Bridge

Neil Craighead, bass-baritone
"Se vuol ballare" - Le nozze di Figaro
"Arise, Ye Subterranean Winds" - The Tempest

Wallis Giunta, mezzo-soprano
"Parto, parto" - La clemenza di Tito
"Nobles seigneurs, salut!" - Les Huguenots

Christopher Enns, tenor
"Kuda, kuda" - Eugene Onegin
"Here I Stand" - The Rake's Progress

Jacqueline Woodley, soprano
"Scoglio d'immota fronte" - Scipione
"S'altro che lacrime" - La clemenza di Tito

Ileana Montalbetti, soprano
"Come in quest'ora bruna" - Simon Boccanegra
"Einsam in truben Tagen" - Lohengrin

Michael Uloth, bass
"O Isis und Osiris" - Die Zauberfloete
"I'm a Lonely Man, Susannah" - Susannah

Simone Osborne, soprano
"Och, jaky zal...Ten lasky sen" - The Bartered Bride
"Ach, ich fuhl's" - Die Zauberfloete

Adrian Kramer, baritone
"Mein Sehnen, mein Wahnen" - Die tote Stadt
Sid's Monologue - Albert Herring

Rihab Chaieb, mezzo-soprano
"Svegliatevi nel core" - Giulio Cesare
"Must the winter come so soon?" - Vanessa

Founded in 2000 by noted pianist/pedagogue Christina Petrowska Quilico in honour of her late husband and renowned Canadian baritone Louis Quilico, the Christina and Louis Quilico Fund has been offering financial awards in support of promising young Canadian singers in their pursuit of a professional career. This year for the first time, the Christina and Louis Quilico Awards, as it is now called, took place at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre, hosted by the Ontario Arts Foundation. The event was in the form of a vocal competition adjudicated by a panel made up of Alexander Neef of the COC, David Speers of Opera Hamilton, and John Hess of the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre.

Unlike the typical competitions out there that are open to qualified singers, the format of the 2011 Quilico competition is unusual in that it is only open to COC Ensemble Studio artists. If I may allow myself a bit of speculation, it could not have been easy for COC's General Director Alexander Neef to sit in the judge's chair. As head of the COC, these young singers are his charges, his figurative "children." How does one love one child more than the other? That said, it is the reality of the opera world that artists are constantly being compared, and they compete for roles, contracts, and recognition by impresarios and the public. So it is only part of a singer's training to engage in friendly competition, to develop the strength and self confidence in one's own abilities, and at the same time the grace to recognize and appreciate excellence in their midst. I came away from the event feeling impressed by the wealth of talent among our young singers, the very artists who will ensure a bright future for opera.

Soprano Ambur Braid kicked off the proceedings with the vocal fireworks from Queen of the Night's "O zittre nicht." A dramatic coloratura, Braid sang with big, rich tone, remarkable accuracy in her fioritura and secure high notes, including the single F near the end. Her second piece was an aria in English from Samuel Barber's rarely performed short opera, A Hand of Bridge. Braid showed off her full middle register, a rarity among coloraturas. Right in the middle of her aria, a series of loud, blood-curdling screams could be heard coming from somewhere in the opera house, outbursts that occurred periodically over what seemed like an eternity, in reality probably only a couple of minutes at most. Braid deserves full credit for keeping her composure, and the presence of mind to quip at the end of her aria - "That's how I feel exactly!" cracking up the audience in the process. Fortunately for the rest of the competition, the drama was where it should be - confined to the stage!

Next up was bass-baritone Neil Craighead who offered a mellifluous if dramatically restrained Figaro's cavatina "Se vuol ballare" from Nozze, followed by an aria from Purcell's Tempest, a very good piece for his voice. He sang it with fine English diction and good agility. Mezzo Wallis Giunta, who will be joining the Lindemann Young Artists Program at the Met, contributed Sesto's showstopping "Parto, parto" and "Nobles seigneurs, salut!" from Les Huguenots. The Mozart is a tour de force, which Giunta sang with her trademark gleaming tone. Good tenors are always in short supply, and Christopher Enns is indeed a tenor with great material. He sang Lensky's aria with feeling and plangent tone. His Tom Rakewell was equally impressive. After just one year, his upper register and mezza voce have gained solidity. With continuing work, he has the potential for a big career. The first half concluded with soprano Jacqueline Woodley singing two arias. Her first piece, the very difficult coloratura aria from Handel's Scipione showed off her fresh, warm tone even if the fioritura wasn't quite note perfect. Her Servilia's aria from La clemenza di Tito impressed with nice high pianissimos.

The second half opened with soprano Ileana Montalbetti. While it would be premature to call her a dramatic soprano, the rich, penetrating, somewhat steely tone and ample volume is ideal in certain Italian spinto roles and the jugendliche dramatisch roles in Wagner and Strauss. Montalbetti offered beautifully poised singing in "Einsam in truben Tagen" and "Come in quest'ora bruna", the occasional flatness in the passaggio in Amelia's aria notwithstanding. Bass Michael Uloth does not have a basso profundo type of voice, and he sang Sarastro's "O Isis und Osiris" with youthful and even timbre; the Olin Blitch's aria from Susannah, while a little monochromatic, was movingly sung. The fast-rising soprano Simone Osborne sang Marenka's aria with warm tone and dramatic intensity. The second piece, "Ach, ich fuhl's" was also lovely - she undoubtedly benefited from having sung several performances of Pamina recently on the COC mainstage. Adrian Kramer has a warm and flexible lyric baritone which he used to advantage in Fritz's aria from Die tote Stadt - it was a very beautiful piece of singing. His second aria, Sid's "Tickling a trout, poaching a hare" from Albert Herring - replacing the previously announced "Largo al factotum" - showed off his comedic acuity and his ingratiating stage persona. The competition ended with mezzo Rihab Chaieb, who sang a heart-felt "Must the winter come so soon?", Erika's aria from Vanessa and well suited to her lyric mezzo voice.

After a brief pause for the judges to deliberate, it was announced that baritone Adrian Kramer was awarded First Prize ($5000), soprano Ileana Montalbetti Second Prize of $3000 and tenor Christopher Enns Third Prize ($2000). Given the high quality of the performances, one wished for more than three awards. It may sound trite, but truly there were no losers. All ten singers are enormously gifted artists and with further training and development, they will be voices to be reckoned with in the future.


Sunday, 17 April 2011

Fun at the Opera: Nuns in NY and Aliens in Austin!

by Paul E. Robinson
It’s not possible to be in two places at once, or is it? Thanks to “The Met Live in HD," I virtually spent the afternoon in New York enjoying Le Comte Ory, and the evening at the Long Center in Austin, Texas, totally engrossed in Jonathan Dove’s Flight as presented by the Austin Lyric Opera.
Le Comte Ory and Flight are far from standard opera fare, yet both were first-class entertainment, and, in the case of Flight, philosophically interesting too. These two productions had something else in common; each of them involved the birth of a child - one off stage and the other on, but more about that later.
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory may not be as noteworthy as his Il Barbiere di Siviglia or La Cenerentola, but in a production as good as this one by The Met, with a cast almost too good to be true, it doesn’t really matter.
Director Bartlett Sher has a real flair for this kind of piece. Le Comte Ory is essentially a small scale chamber piece best seen in an opera house seating 500-1,000 people. It is really absurd to be producing it at The Met with its 3,800 seats.
Size and space notwithstanding, Sher worked magic. Rather than destroy the work by opening it out to the parameters of the mammoth Met stage, he preserved the essence of the opera by scaling down. To accomplish this, he came up with the ‘conceit’ of doing the opera as a play within a play. He devised a stage or raised playing area using only a small part of the vast Met stage.
What the audience saw was activity on and offstage, as it were, with a stage manager “managing” and his crew moving sets, props, and the curtain as required. How this all looked to The Met audience at the back of the third tier I have no idea, but for the audience in the movie theatre it was an ideal way to present the opera. Of course, the movie audience also had the advantage of being able to see facial expressions and the small bits of business that propelled the production.
Heading the cast were singers ideal for their roles: tenor Juan Diego Florez as the hopelessly randy Count Ory; mezzo-soprano Joyce Di Donato as his page; and soprano Diana Damrau as the Countess Adèle.
Florez was sensational tossing off his high Cs and Ds and Damrau inhabited the coloratura stratosphere as if she owned it. Di Donato, who didn’t get to demonstrate any high-pitched fireworks, did what she always does - made a gorgeous sound and executed the technical turf with the greatest of ease and accuracy.
The ensembles were impressive. With a brilliant conductor at the helm, in the person of Maurizio Benini, these complicated set pieces came off splendidly. The Act I finale had speed, accuracy and most remarkably, beauty of sound.
The most memorable scene in the opera was indubitably the ‘three-in-a-bed romp’ with Florez, Damrau and Di Donato, all of whom must have worked for days with director Sher to get the movements of hands, legs, lips, etc. to coordinate so perfectly with the music. There is definitely potential in this scene for a slapstick and tasteless rendering, but Sher didn’t go there; instead, he gave us a sophisticated and intricate staging, clearly based on Molière and the high art of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century French comedy.
After a break for dinner – and an update on the Masters from Augusta – Marita and I dashed downtown to see a very different kind of opera.
Jonathan Dove’s Flight was premiered at Glyndebourne in 1998, and for a contemporary work, it has garnered an extraordinary number of productions around the world. It’s a “comic opera,” for the most part, but in no way does it relate to “musical comedy” or the lighter category of musical stage works. The music in Flight is highly complex - particularly in its rhythms - and there are no arias in the usual sense of the word.
As I have suggested, Flight also has a philosophical dimension. It is based on the real life tragedy of an Iranian refugee named Mehran Nasseri, who lived in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for nearly eighteen years. Without proper papers, no country would take him. The story is best known in a 2004 film version by Steven Spielberg (Terminal), but a more reliable source is Nasseri’s own autobiography The Terminal Man.
Dove and his librettist (April de Angelis) have depicted Nasseri’s story not only in its essence, but also as a kind of parable for our times. That said, they focus on the comic potential and downplay some of the most disturbing elements. In real life, Nasseri was trapped by the rigidity of immigration departments in Belgium, France and the U.K. He may also have been mentally ill. He was finally released from his terminal “prison” for health reasons and is now apparently living in a homeless shelter.
In Flight, Nasseri is simply called ‘The Refugee’ and, somewhat oddly, his plight is treated as a secondary issue. More time is spent on the affair between the Stewardess and the Steward, marital problems between Bill and Tina about to leave on a vacation in the tropics, and a couple going to Minsk. There is also an Older Woman, alone in the terminal but dreaming about relationships past, present and future.
All these people, like ‘The Refugee,’ are trapped in a ‘terminal;’ that is to say, their lives as they have lived them so far. Generally, they are unhappy with who they are and with the people to whom they are married or with whom they have a relationship.
Most travelers - but not ‘The Refugee’ – can eventually leave the “terminal.” In Flight, as the characters depart the ‘physical’ terminal at the end of the opera, they also set out with a new sense of themselves and of each other.
One of the most imaginative touches on Jonathan Dove’s part was to score the airport Controller’s part for a coloratura, and correspondingly, on the director’s part, to position her on a very high platform (the control tower) onstage. She is the link between planes and people, sky and earth, and perhaps God and man. Nili Riemer was wonderful in this role, producing soaring lines of melody perfectly in tune with her character.
Equally inspired was the composer’s choice of a counter-tenor voice – an ideal range for a ‘misfit,’ an ‘alien’ - for the role of ‘The Refugee.’ Nicholas Zammit, fresh out of UCLA and a last minute substitute in this production, sang and played this part with beauty, accuracy and a real touch of innocence in his demeanor. Talk about auspicious debuts!
In giving ‘otherworldly’ voices to the Controller and “The Refugee,” both of whom “live” in the terminal but have ‘personas’ that reach out to worlds scarcely imagined or understood, Dove and de Angelis clearly intended to suggest a relationship between these two characters.
This was an excellent cast assembled in Austin by General Director Kevin Patterson, conductor Richard Buckley and stage director Kristine McIntyre.
As usual, Buckley ran a tight ship from the ‘pit’ and deserves a lot of credit for achieving such amazing precision in a very difficult work on opening night.
And the babies I mentioned? The Minsk Woman gave birth on stage in Flight, and earlier in the day, just a half hour before her husband was due on stage at The Met, Mrs. Juan Diego Florez gave birth to a son, Leandro, at home in the Upper West Side of New York. May both newcomers live long and happy lives!
It was a compliment to the stature of this production that composer Jonathan Dove was in attendance. He appeared on stage with the cast to share in the well-deserved applause at the end. I suspect that he was pleased with what he saw and heard.
Incidentally, whoever harbors the notion that Austin doesn’t appreciate classical music should know that on the occasion of the opening night performance of Flight at the Long Center, the Mayor of Austin declared the date “Jonathan Dove Day” in the city!
For Those Wanting More…
While The Met production of Le Comte Ory generally pleased the critics, noted Rossini scholar Philip Gossett was not happy.
Gossett believes that the standard 1828 edition of the score used by The Met is unreliable and misrepresents what the composer intended. In his opinion, The Met should have used the new scholarly version based on recently discovered original performance materials; this version is being published by Bärenreiter and has already been used for a production at the Zurich Opera.
It should be noted that Mr. Gossett is the General Editor of this new edition.
In commenting on this dispute in a recent article in the New York Times (April 8, 2011), Anthony Tommasini points out that the newly discovered ‘original’ scoring is fuller and more complete than the 1828 edition: "The Act I finale, which Rossini lovers know as a madcap ensemble for seven solo singers and chorus, was originally scored for and performed by 13 solo singers and two combative choruses. And for the spirited final choral ensemble of the opera, which comes after a hauntingly romantic trio and has always seemed strangely abrupt, Mr. Gossett and his team have discovered 100 additional measures."
Kudos to The Met for reviving this neglected Rossini confection and going all out on the casting, but thumbs down for its failure to take advantage of the latest scholarship.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."
Photo (above): Maestro Richard Buckley with "Flight" cast members by Marita.

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This Week in Toronto (Apr. 18 - 24)

Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792 - 1868)

by Joseph K. So

The Canadian Opera Company's spring season swings into action this week with Rossini's La cenerentola, one of the best known among his 39 operas. I had a sneak peek at one of the working rehearsals last week, and can say Torontonians are in for a real treat! Absolutely gorgeous production - best described as an updated and stylized traditional style - with amazing costumes and superlative singing. This Rossini was last staged by the COC exactly fifteen years ago in April 1996, starring the glamorous Italian diva Ana Caterina Antonacci as Angelina. Although billed as a soprano, Antonacci has one of those "falcon" or Zwischenfach voices that are good in low soprano or high mezzo roles (Octavian, Donna Elvira, Marie, Didon, Santuzza). This time around, we have a totally different Angelina in Elizabeth DeShong, a genuine low mezzo with a rich, resonant timbre, an exceptional upper extension and great agility. The Ramiro is the terrific American Lawrence Brownlee. I first heard Brownlee in the Montreal Opera Gala in 2001. Even at the very beginning of his career at that time, his voice was already amazing. To my ears, Brownlee is the only legitimate competition to the great Peruvian Juan Diego Florez, and the American's mellower sound is preferable to Florez's extremely bright but somewhat edgy timbre. Canadian baritone Brett Polegato is Dandini and Italian buffo Donato DiStefano makes a welcome return to the COC as Magnifico. American baritone Kyle Ketelson is Alidoro - talk about luxury casting! Italian maestro Leonardo Vordoni makes his company debut. The show opens on Saturday April 23 at 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre for nine performances. The COC's free noon-hour vocal series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre continues on April 21 with a recital of songs by Mahler and Strauss featuring artists of the COC Ensemble Studio. No program as of press time but you can be sure it will be good. Be sure to show up an hour ahead for a seat.

On Good Friday, a day before the opening of the Rossini, Opera Atelier opens with Mozart's La clemenza di Tito starring soprano Measha Brueggergosman as Vitellia. It follows her highly successful OA debut as Elettra in Idomeneo three years ago. Measha has achieved pop diva status in Canadian culture. She doesn't sing opera all that often so this is a good chance to hear her. Returning to the company is Serbian dramatic tenor Kresimer Spicer as Tito, and American male soprano Michael Maniaci as Sesto. Canadians soprano Mireille Asselin (Servilia) and mezzo Mireille Lebel (Annio) round out the cast. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Six performances at the Elgin Theatre starting April 22.

The Canadian Music Centre is celebrating the life of the late Ann Southam in a tribute at the MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music on April 21 at 7:30 pm. This is billed as a gathering of family, friends, colleagues and admirers of the late Canadian composer. This event is free but please email to let the organizers know at

This being Easter Week, there are numerous concerts big and small celebrating the Christian event. A particularly interesting one is the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presenting Sacred Music for a Sacred Space: a celebration of Healey Willan. On the program are sacred works by the late Canadian composer. Noel Edison as usual conducts. The event is on Good Friday at 7:30 pm, at the St. Paul's Basilica, 83 Power Street in Toronto.

Finally for something a little different, the 2011 Christina and Louis Quilico Awards is going to take place on Wednesday at 5:30 pm at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre. This event will be hosted by the Ontario Arts Foundation. The late Louis Quilico was of course Canada's greatest Verdi baritone, and his second wife Christina Petrowska Quilico a well known pianist and pedagogue. This competition is unusual in that all contestants are COC Ensemble Studio members. The jurors are Alexander Neef of the COC, David Speers of Opera Hamilton and John Hess, pianist and head of Queen of Puddings Theatre. Remember to show up an hour ahead to ensure a seat.