Barbara Bargnesi and Francesca Sassu, sopranos; Carolyn Sproule, mezzo; David Pomeroy, tenor; Massimo Cavalletti, baritone. Marco Guidarini, conductor. Opera Canada Symphony and Chorus. Rick Phillips, host. Roy Thomson Hall, 7 p.m., Sunday, December 31, 2017.
What’s that famous Christmas song lyrics that goes something like “The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful…”? If you substitute fire with opera, it pretty much sums up the scenario last evening at Roy Thomson Hall, with Bravissimo! Opera’s Greatest Hits bidding a fond farewell to 2017.
Now in its tenth year, Bravissimo gives Toronto opera fans an opportunity to hear Canadian singers joined by international artists, some making their Canadian debuts with the show. This year, we have two Canadians, tenor David Pomeroy and mezzo Carolyn Sproule, joined by four Italians, sopranos Barbara Bargnesi and Francesca Sassu, baritone Massimo Cavalletti, and Maestro Marco Guidarini.
Of the Canadians, Pomeroy is a graduate of the COC Ensemble Studio, and he has now established himself on the international scene. A former lyric tenor, he has taken on the heavier dramatic tenor roles the likes of Tannhauser and Florestan the last few seasons. Mezzo-soprano Sproule is less well known in Canada than in the US, where she sings regularly at the Met. She makes her COC debut this month as Maddalena in Rigoletto.
Of the four Italians, the best known to Toronto is conductor Guidarini, who has led Il Trovatore, Simon Boccanegra, and La Traviata at the COC, plus last year’s Bravissimo. Tuscan baritone Massimo Cavalletti is making his Canadian debut with this performance. Cavalletti is in demand in many of the great opera houses, from La Scala to Covent Garden to the Met. Here’s my recent interview with him in advance of this concert.
Aficionados of operatic gala concerts know that these shows exist primarily for their entertainment value, and not so much for the likelihood of their breaking new artistic grounds. The audience demographic of Bravissimo is typically older, some-time opera attendees, and for the New Year’s Eve, they want an evening of beautiful and familiar music to go with their festivities. Bravissimo, aptly called Opera’s Greatest Hits! fits the bill. I have been attending the past ten years, and every show was enjoyable, if not particularly challenging musically.
This year’s program was All-Italian/French. It opened with a crisp rendition of the overture to L’italiana in Algeri, quite an achievement for a “pick-up orchestra.” It shouldn’t be surprising since Maestro Guidarini has worked with many of the musicians, most of them from the COC Orchestra, such as concertmaster Marie Berard, violinist Yakov Lerner, and cellist Alistair Eng, who incidentally played the cello solo from the Intermezzo of Manon Lescaut beautifully. Throughout the concert, Guidarini conducted with a knowing baton, and the orchestra played with verve and energy. Sometimes the decibels were a bit excessive, considering they were playing on stage and not in the pit, but only very occasionally were the singers covered.
First up was baritone Massimo Cavalletti, who offered a spirited “Largo al factotum,” from Il barbiere di Siviglia followed by a striking Toreador Song from Carmen, well supported by the 40-member chorus. Cavalletti’s warm baritone with its impressive high register, not to mention his engaging stage persona, got the proceedings off to a brilliant start. His third aria was “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera. Renato’s vengeance aria is quite challenging for a lyric baritone, but Cavalletti did beautifully, auguring well for his future forays into the more dramatic baritone repertoire.
Soprano Francesca Sassu contributed a florid “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide, well supported by the women’s chorus. Sassu has a lovely lyric soprano with a good upper extension. She sang well, although one would have preferred cleaner coloratura. Her pauses for breath also disrupted the musical line. More congenial was Mimi’s more lyrical “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” which she sang beautifully. Barbara Bargnesi was showcased in Marie’s aria from La fille du regiment, joined by the men’s chorus. Her sweet, essentially soubrette voice was ideal. She sang very well, although her French diction left something to be desired. As Lauretta in “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi in the second half, her singing was entirely lovely.
Canadian tenor David Pomeroy took on more than his share of the program and he sang impressively – the Flower Song and the Final Duet from Carmen, the short and sweet “Questa o quella” from Rigoletto, and the obligatory tenor showstopper, “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. His voice has gained in power and volume in recent seasons while retaining his customarily strong top, the so-called “money notes.” The sound is now almost too robust for the Duke in Rigoletto. He dominated the proceedings in the Final Scene in Carmen, underscoring the fact that the Bizet opera was an early example of French verismo. His “Nessun dorma” deservedly brought the house down.
It was a real pleasure to get acquainted with the voice of mezzo Carolyn Sproule, the Maddalena in the COC Rigoletto this month. A true mezzo, her rich and gleaming tone was heard to advantage in Dalila’s “Mon Coeur” from Samson et Dalila. Her Habanera was equally lovely if somewhat placid dramatically. She reserved the spitfire temperament for the Final Scene, which was semi-staged. However, why was the ultimate denouement, when Jose stabs Carmen to death, omitted in the staging? No matter, I look forward to hearing her on opening night Jan 20.
I mustn’t forget to mention the enormous contribution of the chorus. Nineteen men and twenty-one women, all highly experienced singers, most of them current or former members of the COC Chorus. They were wonderful and professional, making a bigger (yet still refined) sound than one could ask for from only a forty-member chorus. Sure, one would have preferred more volume in the Triumphal March in Aïda, but it was still impressive.
As is typical of Bravissimo, it ended with the obligatory Libiamo from La Traviata, with the choristers coming down from the choir loft to join in the festivities, flutes of champagne in hand. I hope it was real bubbly they were drinking! The evening ended with the traditional Auld Lang Syne, and it was over at exactly 9:30 p.m. as promised, with plenty of time for further festivities. Roy Thomson Hall was very nearly full, and I dare say the audience went out into the cold with a collective warm heart.
LUDWIG VAN TORONTO