Songs and Arias by Mozart, Fauré, Wolf, Rachmaninoff, Jake Heggie, Ilse Weber, and Johann Strauss. Anna-Sophie Neher, soprano; Magdalena von Eccher, piano. Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre, 12 p.m., Dec. 4, 2018.
In her first year as a member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, French-Canadian soprano Anna-Sophie Neher is turning heads with her voice and her stage persona. Her Lavia in the recent world premiere of Hadrian, Neher was praised for sparkling tone and an endearing stage presence. Before arriving at the COC, Neher studied at McGill, where she earned a Master of Music, and won the prestigious Wirth Vocal Prize.
This prize, worth $25,000, was established as a result of Elizabeth Wirth’s landmark gift in 2015. It is awarded annually to an outstanding voice student at the Schulich School who demonstrates exceptional skill and artistry. Neher is scheduled to give a winner’s concert in the Chapelle Historique du Bon-Pasteur next April, but we in Toronto are lucky to hear it first! A large contingent of visitors from McGill and Montreal were in attendance at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, including Elizabeth Wirth, the donor.
With her fellow (former) McGill classmate Magdalena von Eccher at the piano, Neher opened with “Alleluia” from Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate, a test piece for a lyric soprano if there ever is one. Her lovely, rich, gleaming tone was on full display, with excellent coloratura, remarkably clean runs, every note in place, capped by a sparkling high C at the end. A brilliant start to the recital. Neher also spoke charmingly to the audience, introducing the pieces on the program.
This was followed by two songs by Fauré — “Les roses d’Isphahan” sung with gentle, caressing tone, while Fleur jetée” was suitably exuberant. The two Hugo Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder No. 6 and 11 were finely spun, especially “An eine Äolsharfe.” To my ears, her bright timbre with its pronounced vibrato, while lovely, can occasionally get a bit overpowering at the top in fortissimos. Given the darker timbre in her middle voice, more so than the typical lyric-coloratura, I can see her moving into the full lyric repertoire in the future.
Next up were two Jake Heggie songs, “Water Stone” and “Incantation Bowl,” new discoveries for me. Heggie shows why he’s considered a top living composer for the voice. Firmly grounded in tonality and lyricism, it still has the distinctive, slightly edgy and angular sound one has come to expect from new music. The are lengthy songs and Neher held the stage well. Very interesting were the two short pieces by Ilse Weber. Neher explained that Weber, a Jew, was killed in the gas chambers in Auschwitz, together with her son. These are two just gorgeous lullabies she wrote in the concentration camp for her son, here sung evocatively and poignantly by Neher.
On a lighter note, Neher moved on to two wonderful Rachmaninoff songs. One of them, Lilacs, Op. 21, no. 5, is a personal favourite of mine. I was introduced to these by the great Elisabeth Söderström who sang many Rachmaninoff songs in Toronto in the ’80s. So nice to hear Neher sing these gorgeous songs so beautifully.
The formal recital concluded with the Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, with the soprano acting up a storm as Adele the Maid and showing off her sparkling tone, complete with a high D ending. I would be remiss not to mention the excellent playing of Ms. Von Eccher, a doctoral candidate at Schulich. Some of these songs have virtuosic codas at the end, which she dispatched with aplomb. The singer and pianist must have done extensive collaborations, as they performed as one.
The audience gave them a very warm ovation. Already quite a big sing of 40+ minutes, yet they generously offered an encore, the great Poulenc crowd-pleaser, “Les Chemins de l’amour,” sung with a surfeit of vocal flair and dramatic allure. Neher showed off her ample breath supply by holding the last note to the end of the piano accompaniment. To be sure, a singer to watch, and we are lucky to have her in the Ensemble.