Danika Lorèn, Samantha Pickett, and Lauren Eberwein, soprano; Simone McIntosh and Megan Quick, mezzo-soprano; Samuel Chan and Bruno Roy, baritone; Andrew Haji, tenor; Rachael Kerr and Stéphane Mayer, harpsichord. COC Orchestra, Johannes Debus, conductor. Four Seasons Centre, 8 p.m., May 25, 2018.
A vital part of the Canadian Opera Company is its young artist program, the Ensemble Studio, which, since its inception in 1980, has served as a training ground for promising Canadian singers. Many of them, the likes of Ben Heppner and Isabel Bayrakdarian, have gone on to significant careers. A typical tenure for an artist is two seasons. The Ensemble Studio show that took place on the mainstage this evening marked the farewell of a number of them, including sopranos Danika Lorèn and Samantha Pickett, mezzo Megan Quick, and baritone Bruno Roy.
The program on this occasion was selections from Cosi fan tutte, as well as a complete performance of Dido and Aeneas. While Mozart and Purcell are not exactly high voltage choices, Baroque and Classical repertoires do serve as ideal vehicle for young voices. This vocal showcase has undergone several transformations over the years. It used to involve short operas — sometimes quite obscure ones — with chamber accompaniment and staged in the Tanenbaum Opera Centre on Front Street. Then it evolved into a complete Ensemble performance of an opera, on the mainstage of the FSC. I have fond memories of those shows, such as The Magic Flute and Cosi fan tutte.
For reasons unknown, this format was discontinued two years ago, and we are now back to excerpts, with the COC Orchestra. I can only guess at the reason for the format change. Likely for financial reasons, but also given that mainstage shows aren’t always suited to showcase young voices, such as the current Anna Bolena. The vagaries of Ensemble membership is such that it’s not always possible to have all voice types every single year. A couple of seasons ago, we had three tenors, but this season we have none! For tonight, former Ensemble tenor Andrew Haji, who is having a terrific career, has been drafted for the occasion.
Onstage was the Anna Bolena set, scheduled for one last performance the next day. The Globe Theatre design served the concert setting wonderfully well, pushing the voices forward into the auditorium. The evening opened with the Cosi Overture, conducted by COC Music Director Johannes Debus. On this occasion, Associate Concertmaster Aaron Schwebel deputized for the regular Concertmaster Marie Berard. I was surprised that there were no arias except for Despina’s “In uomini, in Soldati,” beautifully sung by Danika Lorèn. No “Come scoglio,” no “Un aura amorosa,” not even the trio “Soave sia il vento, a sublime moment in Cosi. Too bad!
However, there were two extended scenes, very nicely semi-staged by Anna Theodosakis. Even though the soloists were in evening wear, they gave their all dramatically, really shining as an ensemble. In a concert setting, often the comedy falls flat, but not tonight, thanks to the energy of the young cast. They were not in the least bit self-conscious or awkward — I particularly enjoyed the antics from Ferrando (Andrew Haji) and Guglielmo (Samuel Chan).
The second half was the complete performance of Purcell’s short opera, Dido and Aeneas. Aeneas is considered a tenor role, but here it was taken – very well – by lyric baritone Bruno Roy. Dido was mezzo-turned-soprano Lauren Eberwein. With her striking hair colour/style and regal stature, she makes a believable and youthful Dido. Hers is also a very interesting voice, big volume, with a very distinct, dark-hued and smoky timbre. One can hear its mezzo origins. To my ears, the timbre of mezzo Simone McIntosh (Second Witch) is lighter than Eberwein’s. Eberwein sang a lovely “When I Am Laid In Earth,” the best-known aria from the 50-minute opera. Vocal transformation tends to be a work in progress, and I look forward to hearing Eberwein soprano next season.
There was also a ceremony this evening, honouring four musicians, all long-serving, stalwart members of the COC Orchestra, on occasion of their retirement. One of them was Principal Cello Bryan Epperson, whose work I have always admired, both here and at the Santa Fe Opera. I absolutely love his playing, and I hope he will continue to appear as a member of the ARC Ensemble.
There you have it, an enjoyable if a rather short evening at the opera. All told, it was two hours including an intermission, a holiday compared to Anna Bolena! The young singers who are bidding farewell to the Ensemble are all talented and ready to strike out on their own, as evidenced by this performance. We wish them the best.