To give a singing career a head start, there’s nothing quite like a good old competition. Since its inception in 2011, the Annual COC Ensemble Competition is a great opportunity for young Canadians to get valuable training and much-needed exposure in a tough profession, at a crucial moment in a young artist’s development.
Centre Stage started out as a more modest affair in its first two years, taking place in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre. Starting in 2013, it was rebranded as “Centre Stage” with all the bells and whistles. It now takes place in the main auditorium, with full orchestra, though no sets or scenery, not even with the current production on stage. This is because the stage is needed for the post-performance dinner, at $1,500 a plate no less.
Auditions are held across the country each year, and the lucky ones are invited to come to Toronto for the finals. There were eight finalists last evening, chosen from 123 applicants. They are sopranos Vanessa Croome, Andrea Lett and Noelle Slaney; mezzo Jamie Groote; tenors Matthew Cairns and Rocco Rupolo; and bass-baritones Vartan Gabrielian and Aaron Dimoff. Tenor Ben Heppner returned as MC, with the COC Orchestra conducted by its Music Director Johannes Debus.
Members of the jury panel this year included Alexander Neef, General Director; Roberto Mauro, Artistic Administrator; Nina Draganic, Director of Access and Training; Liz Upchurch, Head of Ensemble Studio; and Wendy Nielsen, Head Vocal Consultant. In addition, there were two “guest panellists” — J. Patrick Raftery, tenor and voice teacher at UBC, and Evamaria Wieser, Director of Artistic Administration at the Salzburg Festival.
There were two parts to the Competition: a “closed” session at 5 p.m., where each singer sang one aria, and a public part of the competition, where each singer sang a second aria. The jurors retired to deliberate. A guest artist entertained the audience with a couple of arias. This year it was mezzo Emily D’Angelo, a former winner of Centre Stage. Emily possesses a sparkling mezzo and great dramatic instincts. In addition to Centre Stage, D’Angelo was a Metropolitan Opera Auditions winner, and just this past summer, she virtually cleaned up all the top prizes at the 2018 Operalia in Lisbon. Last evening, she sang “Una voce poco fa” from Barbiere, and the Komponist Aria from Ariadne auf Naxos, scintillatingly, as expected. Watch out for her Dorabella in the COC Cosi this coming winter.
As competitions go, Centre Stage is short and sweet — no multiple genre requirements such as opera, oratorio, or lieder. Also, there are no language stipulations that I know of. And there is no imposed piece like some competitions. I sat in on the closed session as well as the public session. Light soprano Vanessa Croome sang Blonchen’s aria from Entfuhrung with bright tone and pert stage presence, a lovely start to the proceedings. Later, she sang Morgana’s “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Alcina, with the requisite flexibility, albeit with a slightly pushed top.
Next up was bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian. His Catalogue Aria has an imposing tone to go with his equally imposing stage presence, perhaps just a touch too serious in demeanour for this piece. In the public session, he sang an impressive Count Rodolfo’s “Vi ravviso” from La sonnambula, with plenty of gravitas, although I would have liked a greater variety of tone colours.
Soprano Noelle Slaney sang “Caro nome” with lovely, rich tone. I would have liked more crispness in her coloratura, also more staccati, a trademark of this aria. She followed it up with Manon’s “Je suis encore tout etourdie.” She captured the capricious nature of Manon well, albeit with a touch of vocal wildness, not inappropriate with this character!
Tenor Matthew Cairns sang Macduff’s aria “Ah la paterna mano” with robust tone. His is clearly a voice destined to grow more heroic/dramatic with maturity. My first impression was reinforced by his second aria, “O souverain” from Le Cid. He sang it with fine composure and dignity, not to mention beautiful tone. A singer to watch.
Mezzo Jamie Groote, whom I had previously heard singing the Komponist Aria from Ariadne at a University of Toronto event, sang “Voi che sapete” — charmingly sung even if she did not look in the least like a Cherubino, given her glamorous concert gown. Her second contribution was Stefano’s aria from Romeo et Juliette, very nicely done.
Bass-baritone Aaron Dimoff sang Dapertutto’s “Scintille, diamant” from Les contes d’Hoffmann. This is a difficult bass aria, with a treacherous high option at the end. He sang it impressively, complete with a ringing top note. For the second aria, he sang Wolfram’s ”O du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhauser with warm tone and smooth legato. Well done!
Light soprano Andrea Lett was a vivid Zerlina in “Batti, batti,” singing with bright tone. It was followed by Gilda’s “Caro nome,” equally fine in her delivery. I would have liked a bit more chiaroscuro throughout, and a greater variety of tone colours. To her credit, she supplied all the staccati one would want in this piece.
Rounding out the session was tenor Rocco Rupolo with an excellent “De miei bollenti spiriti” from La Traviata. He deserved full marks for including the cabaletta with its exposed high C, which he sang beautifully, although holding it perhaps a bit too long. I suppose if you’ve got the high notes, why not! His “Che gelida manina” in the public session was equally well done. He is obviously a singer of great promise.
Given that there was a delicious dinner onstage waiting for some in the audience, the jury deliberations were relatively short and sweet. Alexander Neef came on to announce the winners.
The first-ever CBC Music Young Artist Development Prize was shared between two singers, tenor Matthew Cairns and soprano Andrea Lett. These two will be given a professional studio recording session for a future broadcast.
First Prize of $5,000 was awarded to Toronto-based tenor Matthew Cairns, and to go with the cash is an opportunity to perform at the Elora Festival next season. Second Prize of $3,000 went to Toronto bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian. Third Prize ($1,500) went to mezzo Jamie Groote, also from Toronto. The Audience Choice Award of $1,500 went to soprano Andrea Lett from Prince Albert, SK.
There you have it — four very deserving singers in the winners’ circle. In fact, congratulations are due to all eight finalists, for being chosen to sing in Centre Stage. They all have formidable talent, solid training, and a surfeit of musicality.
I look forward to hearing them all in the future.