La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Triumphant Ensemble Studio Barber Augurs Well for the Future (Review)

Special Ensemble Studio Performance of The Barber of Seville (Review)

Clarence Frazer (Figaro)
Charlotte Burrage (Rosina)
Andrew Haji (Almaviva - act one)
Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure (Almaviva - act two)
Iain MacNeil (Bartolo)
Gordon Bintner (Basilio)
Karine Boucher (Bertha)
Jan Vaculik (Fiorello)

Rory Macdonald, conductor
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
May 15th 2015

A true pleasure for me as an opera lover is to witness the growth and maturity of our young Canadian singers through their tenure in the COC Ensemble Studio. These artists come into the program with the requisite beautiful voices and solid training. During their time in the Ensemble, they learn the tricks of the trade and further hone their skills for a professional career. Last evening, audiences in the Four Seasons Centre got to witness the end result, in the special ensemble performance of The Barber of Seville. If this show was any indication, these young artists are totally ready to make their mark in the opera world.

Finale to Act 2 The Barber of Seville (Photo: Robert Cooper)

This year's Ensemble is a particularly strong one, which explains why the show last evening was so enormously enjoyable. Having seen opening night when there were some rocky moments, all the kinks are now worked out, and the orchestra under Scottish maestro Rory Macdonald sounds wonderful. It set the stage for the young artists to do their best, and we were not disappointed. Interestingly, baritone Joshua Hopkins, the main-stage Figaro, had come down with an infection and Ensemble baritone Clarence Frazer was pressed into service with an unscheduled debut last Saturday. I wasn't at that performance but I've heard very favourable reports. Then on Wednesday, Frazer had to deputize for Hopkins yet again in the evening, after having sung the Ensemble performance dress rehearsal earlier in the day. The pressure on him must have been tremendous, so it's a real feather in his cap for rising to the challenge. Even though he's a young guy with a healthy voice, this sort of double-duty is definitely not advisable!  Last evening was his third performance and he once again rose to the occasion. There was no sign of tiredness other than a few fleeting moments of softness in his sound. The rest of the time, he sang with firm, attractive tone, his excellent top very much in evidence.  The ham that he is, he also acted up a storm.  Given his remarkable artistic growth in the Ensemble in the last two years, Frazer can be very proud of his accomplishments.   

Charlotte Burrage (Rosina) and Andrew Haji (Almaviva) Photo: Michael Cooper

It must be an extra thrill for Frazer to be onstage with his girlfriend and Ensemble colleague, mezzo Charlotte Burrage as Rosina. They had excellent chemistry in the duet "Dunque io son." This was Burrage's main-stage debut in a lead role, not to mention her first ever Rossini and coloratura. Her clear, focused, beautiful lyric mezzo with its firm top and fine coloratura was a pleasure. Dramatically, her Rosina was a well mannered yet lively and smart young woman, endearing but without the madcap, over-the-top, vixenish qualities that some mezzos bring to this role.  

Bartolo (Iain MacNeil) and Basilio (Gordon Bintner) (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Almaviva was split between tenors Andrew Haji (Act One) and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure (Act Two). Haji is blessed with a golden timbre and hall-filling volume, with plenty of squillo but fortunately none of the sharp edges one sometimes hear in lyric tenors singing Rossini. His top is now more secure than ever, and he actually sang a firm high C at the end of his aria, something that Alek Shrader didn't do. Haji's coloratura while good is a work in progress, especially in the runs near his passaggio. But all in all it's a major voice in the making. He moves very well for a big guy, and acted beautifully.  Fortier-Lazure's sweet, soft-grained tenor is a joy, and he sang beautifully except for a fleeting moment when he put too much pressure on his top.  Almaviva in Act Two requires strong comedic skills and Fortier-Lazure was totally up to the task, turning the music lesson into a rip-roaring highlight of the evening. 

Curtain Call (l. to r.) Karine Boucher, Iain MacNeil, Charlotte Burrage, Clarence Frazer, Andrew Haji, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure

Even more remarkable was the Bartolo of Iain MacNeil. On the surface, he would not be an ideal Bartolo - he's too young and he's thin, when one is used to invariably a portly Bartolo. Well, MacNeil exceeded my expectations by giving a totally convincing performance. Basilio has less to do, but bass-baritone Gordon Bintner made the most of his few brief moments in the sun, his La calunnia showed off his beautiful voice.  The same can be said for Karine Boucher, who turned the rather thankless comprimaria Bertha into almost a starring role.  Bertha's aria isn't Rossini at his best, but Boucher managed to make it interesting. And I mustn't forget the excellent work of COC chorister baritone Jan Vaculik as an uncommonly mellifluous Fiorello.

Retiring COC Music Adminisrator Sandra Gavinchuk honoured at reception (l. to r.) Jennifer Szeto, Karine Boucher, Clarence Frazer, Sandra Gavinchuk, Charlotte Burrage, Andrew Haji, Gordon Bintner, Iain MacNeil, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure (Photo: Joseph So)

The production from the Spanish creative team Els Comediants has commedia dell'arte in its core, with every move, however tiny, choreographed to within an inch of its life. Now seeing it a second time, I feel this very physical production works very well. Perhaps it helps with this crew of young singers who are game for anything.  On opening night, I was bothered by the extraneous characters and the various shenanigans onstage, but now I find all of it rather amusing. While I wouldn't call this production equal to the fabulous La cenerentola by the same creative team a few seasons ago, it's still a very fun evening at the opera. Three more performances on May 19, 21, and 22.

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