Centre Stage 2017 Crowns Three Winners
Since its launch in 2011, the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Competition has showcased aspiring operatic talent in Canada. In its first two years, the competition took place in the modest space known as the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre. Since 2013, it was rebranded Centre Stage and relocated to the R. Fraser Elliott Hall, the main auditorium, complete with orchestra. Each year, auditions are held across the country, with the best candidates invited to come to Toronto for the finals.
This year, the seven finalists were sopranos Anna-Sophie Neher, Natalie Image, and Chelsea Rus; mezzo Simona Genga; tenor Matthew Dalen; baritone Jonah Spungin, and bass-baritone Joel Allison. Members of the jury panel were Alexander Neef, COC General Director; Roberto Mauro, Music and Artistic Administrator; Nina Draganic, Director of COC Academy; Liz Upchurch, Head of COC Ensemble Studio; Wendy Nielsen, Head Vocal Consultant; Mary Morrison, soprano and guest jury member.
The finals took place last evening at the Four Seasons Centre. There were two parts to Centre Stage, a private session that took place with only the jury panel present, followed by the public session, open to the whole audience. Each finalist sang one aria in each session, with full orchestra under the direction of conductor Johannes Debus. The MC this year, same as last, was tenor Ben Heppner. Unlike previous years, the private session was not open to the media.
As competitions go, the final phase of Centre Stage is relatively short, involving only two arias to be sung by each contestant. Other major competitions like BBC/Cardiff or Met or Queen Elisabeth or Canada’s own Montreal International Musical Competition, each candidate is expected to sing multiple arias, or there’s a separate song and oratorio division. Sometimes there’s even an imposed piece, usually a new composition commissioned for the occasion.
At Centre Stage, there are three prizes plus the audience prize. First Prize has a cash value of $10,000; Second Prize $3,000 and Third Prize $1,500. The Audience Choice Award is worth $1,500. In addition, this year there’s a performance opportunity for the First Prize winner at the Elora Festival, the annual summer music festival at Elora, Ontario. And of course there’s the unquantifiable – and invaluable – benefits of exposure, having one’s voice heard by opera lovers attending the event.
First up was Gatineau, Quebec soprano Anna-Sophie Neher, currently a Master of Music degree candidate at McGill. Hers is an attractive and bright lyric soprano of good size, and she sang a sparkling Juliette’s Waltz, with excellent high notes. Perhaps one would have liked a bit more dynamic variation and tone colours, and maybe cleaner runs, but overall it was lovely.
Followed her was U of T Masters student bass-baritone Joel Allison. Toronto opera fans would have heard him in various opera productions and concerts around town. He sang Dapertutto’s Diamond Aria from Hoffmann, a very difficult piece for a bass because of the high notes. Even the very fine bass who sang it the last time this opera was staged at the COC omitted it. Allison has the right timbre and gravitas, and he sang it well, except for some tightness in the first high note, due to nerves no doubt — who wouldn’t if you’ve only got two shots at the can?! But the final high note was terrific.
The third contestant was BC soprano Natalie Image, singing an aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden. She graduated with a Masters in Music from San Francisco Conservatory of Music. A light lyric soprano with a delightfully crystal-clear timbre, she sang it with purity of tone and expression.
Next up was Alberta tenor Matthew Dalen, in “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” from Faust. A real test piece for a tenor, it takes guts to go up there to sing it in a competition! Dalen has a beautiful, warm, ingratiating lyric tenor, just the right sound for Faust. He sang it very well, despite a tempo that’s too slow. The only flaw in his beautiful performance was the cruelly exposed high C, which was produced with too much force, sounding strident and not held long enough given the slow tempo. An “A” for effort never-the-less.
BC light lyric soprano Chelsea Rus, a graduate of McGill, sang Norina’s aria from Don Pasquale, with bright, buoyant tone and acted the character very well. Here’s another lyric soprano who has a terrific voice and looks a totally believable Norina. Brava!
Following Rus was mezzo Simona Genga, singing “Adieu, forêts” from Maid of Orleans (Jeanne d’Arc). Hers is an exceptional and rare voice — a powerful low mezzo, with a dark timbre, and volume to spare. It’s produced farther back, giving it a slightly covered sound, ideal in German and Slavic repertoire. Despite the dark timbre, she has an easy top, and a full range of tone colours. Her Jeanne d’Arc aria was totally compelling.
How do you follow that, you ask? But baritone Jonah Spungin, a McGill student, made it look and sound easy. His “Largo al factotum” was truly excellent. This must be one of the most iconic arias for a lyric baritone. It shows off his range and flexibility, and offers great opportunity to act. Mr. Spungin was certainly up to the task, and it was beautifully delivered, with absolutely terrific high notes. What a splendid field! I can say in all honesty that all seven singers would be deserving of winning.
While the jury panel left the auditorium to deliberate, the audience was entertained by COC Artist-in-Residence, soprano Jane Archibald, in “Non mi dir” from Don Giovanni. Donna Anna is quite new to her repertoire — I believe she sang it for the first time here at the COC two seasons ago. She delivered it with sparkling tone and uncommon agility that would be the envy of any soprano tackling Donna Anna. This was followed by the blockbuster “E strano…Sempre libera” from La Traviata, even more of a coloratura showcase, including a magnificent E flat at the end.
COC General Director Alexander Neef came onstage with the jury results.
First Prize and Audience Choice to mezzo Simona Genga; Second Prize to bass-baritone Joel Allison, and Third Prize to soprano Anna-Sophie Neher.
Since the media was not allowed to attend the “private” session this year, it is impossible for me to say whether I agree with the judges. All seven are immensely talented and are capable of winning. Would I had chosen different singers? I’ll never know. My congratulations to the winners. In fact, in my book they are all winners. Bravi tutti!