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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | COC's Ensemble Studio Preview Thrills With Surprise Guest

By Joseph So on September 15, 2017

COC President’s council season opener showcases new voices (Photo courtesy of the COC/Facebook)
COC President’s council season opener showcases new voices (Photo courtesy of the COC/Facebook)

Jane Archibald, sop.; Simone McIntosh, mezzo; Samuel Chan, bar.; Rachel Kerr, piano; Liz Upchurch, piano. Isadore and Rosalie Sharp City Room, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto. Sept. 13, 2017.

It’s that time of year again!  For loyal followers of the Canadian Opera Company, September is an exciting time.  Even before opening night, devoted supporters of the Company (President’s Council, Golden Circle, Life Trustees and Opera Club members) are invited to a soiree where, over drinks and hors-d’oeuvres, they get to hear the new artists joining the Ensemble Studio for the new season. I for one always look forward to these events, to greet old friends and make new ones, and of course to compare notes on opera performances experienced over the summer, and what to look forward to in the coming season.

This event used to take place in the Courtyard of the COC Headquarters on Front Street, but it has since moved to the lobby of the new opera house — the Isadore and Rosalie Sharp City Room of the Four Seasons Centre. While I miss the garden party atmosphere of yore, it’s nice to have foolproof weather conditions! The Ensemble Studio “newbies” this season are mezzo Simone McIntosh, baritone Samuel Chan, and pianist Rachel Kerr. McIntosh hails from BC, Chan from Calgary, and Kerr from Michigan. What they have in common are a surfeit of innate talent, solid training and musicality, all essential ingredients for future success.

I’m familiar with McIntosh and Chan; both sang superbly and were deserved winners of last year’s Centre Stage Competition.  I also recall hearing McIntosh and Kerr from the 2016 Toronto Summer Music Art of the Song program. As is typical of these events, COC General Director Alexander Neef kicked off the proceedings by welcoming all attendees. When he mentioned that the new season is his tenth at the helm, there was spontaneous applause. I think Toronto opera fans would agree with me that his tenure here has significantly raised the artistic bar — and the international stature— of the COC.

The musical program was relatively short. BC mezzo Simone McIntosh started with Urbain’s aria, “Nobles seigneurs, salut!” from the rarely performed Les Huguenots, although this aria, sung by a trouser role, is many a mezzo’s favourite. Looking fabulous in a black outfit, McIntosh sang with gleaming tone. Hers is a high mezzo bordering on soprano, with an easy top and excellent flexibility. With further seasoning, I can easily see her as Octavian and Komponist. Her second aria was Erika’s “Must the winter come so soon?” from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a real chestnut of an English language piece. Dramatically more inward than Urbain’s little ditty, McIntosh showed the requisite emotional depth in her delivery.

For his first aria, Chan chose Harlequin’s arioso “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen” from Ariadne auf Naxos. This is Richard Strauss’s gift to the lyric baritone—short, technically not too demanding, but with a lovely, sweet, lilting melody that lingers. Chan’s modest-sized, naturally produced, forwardly placed, attractive light baritone is ideal in this piece, and he sang it well. The same was true with his second aria, “Questo amor, vergogna mia” from a Puccini rarity, Edgar — nothing too heavy or too dramatic, ideal for showing off a fresh, youthful voice.

Then the two soloists joined forces for “Il core vi dono,” the Dorabella-Guglielmo duet from Cosi fan tutte, one of those cute, frothy pieces that makes this opera so endearing to Mozart aficionados. Through it all, Rachel Kerr offered solid support. It should be noted that none of these five selections offers the pianist much chance to shine technically, but within these parameters, Kerr played well. Also, the piano used wasn’t the Steinway grand normally used in recitals at FSC but a less impressive 5’ 8” baby grand. I was sitting at an angle and couldn’t read clearly, but it looked like a Yamaha — nothing terrible but it could have been better.

Soprano Jane Archibald makes a surprise appearance at the COC President's Council Season Opening Event (Photo courtesy of the COC/Facebook)
Soprano Jane Archibald makes a surprise appearance at the COC President’s Council Season Opening Event (Photo courtesy of the COC/Facebook)

Now, for the surprise!  It has been a bit of a tradition in these events to have a mystery guest, usually a leading artist currently in town for one of the productions. It turned out to be Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, here to make her role debut as Zdenka in Arabella. As the COC’s first-ever Artist-In-Residence, she’s starring in three of the six shows this season. The other two are Konstanze — her signature role, and another first, the Nightingale in the Stravinsky opera. At one time, Archibald was an exclusive lyric-coloratura, but she has been transitioning to a broader repertoire that includes more dramatic roles, such as the Donna Anna she sang here two seasons ago, while maintaining her core rep such as Zerbinetta and Olympia.

When I saw her Adele in Die Fledermaus at the Santa Fe Opera this past summer, she mentioned that she was retiring Adele the maid and tackling the mistress of the house, Rosalinda, in the future. Well, she made good her promise!  With the Ensemble Studio head Liz Upchurch at the piano, Archibald treated the audience to a sassy and fun rendition of that showstopper, “Klänge der Heimat” or better known as the Csardas. Her clear, crystalline tone was a pleasure. If the lower register wasn’t ideally full or powerful, the top was marvellous, complete with a terrific trill and sparkling runs, all the way up to a strong high C-sharp at the end. That brought a roar of approval from the appreciative audience, many of whom lingered long afterwards, enjoying the balmy September evening.

The Canadian Opera Company 2017-18 season opens with Richard Strauss’s Arabella on Oct. 5, 2017.

#LUDWIGVAN

Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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