La Scena Musicale

Friday, 30 November 2012

A Grand Night of Singing: Report from the 2nd COC Ensemble Studio Competition

 Winners Circle: (l. to r.) Gordon Bintner, Charlotte Burrage, Andrew Haji (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

COC General Director Alexander Neef congratulating winners of the Second Annual COC Ensemble Studio Competition (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

by Joseph So

Second Annual COC Ensemble Studio Competition
6:30 pm Thursday, November 29, 2012
Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre

Kelsey Vicary, soprano - E strano...Sempre libera / Adieu, notre petite table
Nathan Keoughan, bass - Se vuol ballare / Vecchia zimarra
Aviva Fortunata, soprano - Ernani involami / Or sai chi l'onore
Charlotte Burrage, mezzo - Vois sous l'archet fremissant / Composer's Aria
Andrew Haji, tenor - Quanto e bella / Un'aura amorosa
Clarence Frazer, baritone - Mein sehnen, mein wahnen / Hai gia vinta la causa
Danielle MacMillan, mezzo - Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle / Torna di Tito a lato
Michael Marino, tenor - Questa o quella / Here I stand
Lara Secord-Haid, soprano - Regnava nel silenzio / Je veux vivre
Gordon Bintner, bass-baritone - Non piu andrai / Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto

Rachel Andrist, Steven Philcox / piano

Jury Panel - Liz Upchurch, Sandra Gavinchuk, Roberto Mauro, Wendy Nielsen, Alexander Neef (chair)

Opera buffs love a good competition, to be sure. It's the excitement of hearing up and coming voices vying for prize money and glory that makes competition irresistible - to me, at least!  So I was really looking forward to the 2nd Annual COC Ensemble Studio Competition last evening. Ten aspiring singers got to strut their stuff, all well schooled, with beautiful voices backed by a solid technique, and a desire to tell a story, to communicate their art to an audience.  Some of them have that extra, intangible something called star power, musicality, charisma, whatever. It's that elusive quality that makes a singer an artist, and someone with the promise of a significant career. Competitions such as this one are designed to find that singer. 

The Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre was totally sold out, the steps completely taken, and with people lined along the railing on the 5th level.  And for the donors and VIPs, they were seated in a theatre-in-the-round arrangement a few feet from the performers.  COC General Director Alexander Neef opened the proceedings with a few remarks before handing it over to chorusmaster Sandra Horst, herself a former Ensemble Studio member back in the early 1990's.  She introduced the contestants. Each one spoke briefly to the audience followed by a selection of his/her choice of aria, followed by one chosen by the jury panel that was made up with COC people - Neef as chair, plus Artistic Administrator Roberto Mauro (son of retired Canadian tenor Ermanno Mauro), Music Administrator Sandra Gavinchuk, Head of the Ensemble Studio Liz Upchurch, and teacher/former COC Ensemble member soprano Wendy Nielsen. 

Soprano Kelsey Vicary kicked off the competition with Violetta's lengthy (and daunting!) scena, E strano, a forse lui...Sempre libera. It was likely difficult to be the first to sing. She's certainly well schooled and musical. Vicary looks beautiful, has a good voice and the requisite high notes up to a E-flat. Her prominent vibrato has a tendency to take over, especially in the upper middle voice/passaggio. It caused the tone to lose focus and pitch in this long aria. Also, it was taken at a too leisurely tempo, making it difficult to sustain the tension.  A promising voice that is a work in progress.

Nathan Keoughan is listed as a bass, although he is to my ears more of a bass-baritone. A pleasant voice and good stage presence, but on this particular occasion, he had some difficulty with his top in both the Nozze aria and in Colline's coat song. A promising voice that needs more technical assurance.

Aviva Fortunata.  When she announced her choice of "Ernani involami", my ears perked up. This is a taxing aria for spinto voices (my favourite fach, incidentally) and a real show piece.  Fortunata has a large, beautiful, ringing, well focused full lyric soprano with distinct spinto aspirations. Her sense of pitch is excellent, and her breath-line is wonderfully long, a great asset in these big challenging Verdi arias!  It has a slightly cool timbre that is lovely for both the German and Italian repertoires.  She sang Elvira's aria very beautifully and excellent in technique.  The high tessitura of her second aria, Donna Anna's vengeance aria didn't faze her at all - again pitch perfect and tireless above the stave.  If I were to nitpick, I would have liked a bit more colours.  She has a nice mezza voce, which she should use more - ok, maybe not in Or sai which is sung full throttle all the time, but in the Ernani piece. Still, this is an exceptional voice and for me, the early winner.     

Charlotte Burrage.  A high mezzo with a lovely timbre, even from top to bottom, nice pleasant vibrato, and fine musicality. The Nicklausse aria was beautiful sung, with nice legato. She followed it with the Composer's Aria, a piece that taxes the upper reaches of a lyric mezzo range.  It also has unusual modulations that expose a singer's technique, especially without the support of a full orchestra.  Well, Ms. Burrage sang it beautifully. This is just the right voice for the Composer - brava!

Andrew Haji.  For followers of the U of T Faculty of Music, Andrew Haji is a familiar name.  How often does one find a tenor with a voice of such quality?  Voices like his don't grow on trees, that's for sure!  I remember how impressed I was when he sang the title role in the Rob Ford Opera last year.   It is bright, well focused, and sweet, just the right timbre for Mozart and the light Italian repertoire. I wasn't able to hear his Nemorino last week, but all reports indicate a big success. On this occasion, he sang Quanto e bella, and it was clear what all the buzz is about - it's simply gorgeous, his ingratiating tone much in evidence, all delivered with taste and rock solid legato.  His second piece, Ferrando's Un'aura amorosa, a test piece if there ever is one, was equally fine. Totally secure in his upper middle which is often a downfall of many a tenor in this very tricky aria.  So Mr. Haji is more a baby-Pavarotti than a Juan Diego Florez, but who cares?  The voice is a great one.

Clarence Frazer.  A lyric baritone with a well modulated, slightly covered and virile sound, technically secure and good musicality, Frazer is a fine singer.  He sang Fritz's Mein Sehen, mein Wahnen from Die tote Stadt.  This is a real lyric baritone's party piece, with a wonderfully evocative melody.  But it is also tricky - it tests a singer's legato and ability to sustain a slow piece. Frazer was very good, although I would have liked a more developed mezza voce and high piano - though I give him credit for not resorting to falsetto as many baritones do in this piece.  I would also liked better attention to the German text, he suppressed the 'k' in Zuruck, a small thing but important. The Count's aria was also beautifully sung. His voice (and his appearance) remind me a little of the former Ensemble Studio member, Adrian Kramer, a singer whom I liked a lot during his time at the Ensemble. With a bit more polish, Frazer would be an asset in any ensemble program. 

Danielle MacMillan.  A lyric mezzo of attractive quality, she sang the Page's aria from Romeo et Juliette and Annio's aria from La clemenza di Tito. Her timbre is a nice one, somewhat on the cool side, and I missed the whole palette of tone colours that should be part of the arsenal of the high mezzo voice. Her singing had a somewhat monochromatic quality, as a result. The playfulness of the Stefano aria didn't come out fully.

Michael Marino.  This competition was blessed with not just one, but two fine tenors.  Marino has a bright, high tenor of ingratiating quality. He also possesses an exuberant stage persona, and a small but slim built and a handsome face.  His Questa o quella was beautifully sung, and physically he would make a believable Duke. His top is glorious, totally secure, big, and ringing - that's half the battle right there!  Occasionally his production is a bit too forward or open, but it gives it that sunny and Italianate quality.  His second aria - picked by the jury - unfortunately was Tom Rakewell's Here I Stand - an acting piece that doesn't really show off the voice. I would have loved to have heard "Ich baue ganz" from Entfuhrung... o well.  Still, this is an outstanding singer. If he can reign in his exuberant nature, he will go far.

Lara Secord-Haid.  A lovely singer, physically and vocally. She sang Lucia's act one aria beautifully, perhaps not quite note perfect but very nice.  Then it was Juliette's Waltz, again well done. But I would have liked more colours to her tone, occasionally her vibrato became intrusive, but it was a minor quibble. She certainly had all the notes, plus a solid lower register, unusual for a high soprano. She just needs to be more expressive and really bring the text out.  Again, a work in progress of a very fine singer in the making.

Gordon Bintner. Whoever did the programming did Mr. Bintner a favour by putting him at the very end.  Not that he needed any help! This is a major singer and is clearly the best in this competition. He is tall, slim, handsome, moves well on stage, musicality and charisma to burn, has a glorious baritone that is sturdy yet expressive. In other words, this guy has the complete package. Any ensemble program would take him in a nano-second. As Alexander Neef said at the end of the evening that Bintner would be a scary Don Giovanni someday.  Well, I think that day is already here!  Heard him summer of 2011 at the Toronto Summer Music masterclass and he was certainly the best singer in the class. His Figaro aria was acted with flair and sung with firm, manly tone - bravo.  His Rinaldo aria - a role he sang at McGill - was fabulous with excellent agility for such a big voice. It is clear Mr. Bintner is enormously talented, and reminds me quite a lot of fellow bass-baritone Philippe Sly, who left the Ensemble to become the Adler Fellow at San Francisco this fall. Gordon Bintner would be the ideal replacement.

There you have it. Ten candidates, and ten fine voices.  Some are more ready for prime time than others, but all show great promise.  I sat beside my colleague Wayne Gooding, who happens to be my editor at Opera Canada.  We compared notes all evening, and we pretty much agreed that Bintner would take top prize, as he's the most outstanding of the field. The others were harder to rank.  We came up with four more singers, in no specific order - Aviva Fortunata, Michael Marino, Andrew Haji, and Charlotte Burrage.  As it turned out, the three winners according to the wisdom of the jury panel were Bintner, Haji, and Burrage.  These three were totally wonderful and completely deserving of being in the winners' circle, although I shed a tear for Fortunata and Marino - both were wonderful and deserve to win.  Afterwards, I went up to Aviva Fortunata and told her how much I enjoyed her singing.  I feel she has probably the rarest of the voices among the women. Spinto sopranos with her quality don't grow on trees. I am sure she, together with Michael Marino, are singers to be reckoned with in the future. Yes, it was indeed a grand night of singing. 

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