Lauren Margison and Anna-Sophie Neher, soprano; Simona Genga and Jamie Groote, mezzo; Matthew Cairns, tenor; Joel Allison and Vartan Gabrielian, bass-baritone; Rachael Kerr and Alex Soloway, piano. Sept. 19, 2019, 12 p.m. Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre.
After a summer of slim pickings regarding opera in the GTA, the lyric season is once again upon us. As a starter, the COC is introducing its new edition of the Ensemble Studio in a noon hour concert at the opera house. In its nearly forty-year history, the Ensemble Studio has nurtured many a Canadian talent, with many going on to significant careers.
Based on what I heard in the noon hour recital on Thursday, the 2019-20 will be a banner year when it comes to young singers. Seven beautiful voices, with solid grounding, firm technique, the requisite musicality, and the innate desire to communicate what each has to offer. Their talent was on full display in a program of opera arias. While these events are singer-centric to be sure, it should be noted that they were fully supported by very promising, young collaborative pianists as well.
And this season, we have an additional category, that of a Composer-in-Residence, in the person of Ian Cusson. He was unable to be at this concert due to a previous engagement — the world premiere of his new piece at the National Arts Centre, not too shabby, eh? Given this was the first Ensemble concert of the year, all nine artists were asked to introduce themselves to the audience, and they were all charming and well-spoken.
Bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian kicked off the proceedings with a spirited rendition of Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni. He has the physical stage presence to make a strong statement, plus the acting chops to be a dramatically ideal Leporello, the sidekick of the Don. His sonorous bass sounds impressive, albeit with a somewhat less-than-firm vibrato, which I am sure the Ensemble teachers will address.
Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher, who made an auspicious COC debut last season in Hadrian, continues to impress with her gleaming, bright, beautifully focused lyric soprano, here in Cleopatra’s “Piangero.” To be sure a first-class voice, she sounds huge and the tone is luscious. Perhaps her youthful enthusiasm got the better of her, as the aria was sung with too much high forte and not enough high piano. After all it’s an aria of lament, isn’t it.
Mezzo Simona Genga, now in her second year, contributed Olga’s aria from Eugene Onegin. This piece is designed for a true mezzo with a firm low register. Genga has just the plummy low notes to do it justice. Sometimes low mezzos and/or contraltos can sound old, but not Genga, who has an endearing freshness and sheen to her timbre, not to mention the vivid stage persona to bring Tatiana’s sister to life. Well done.
Speaking of low notes — the lowest notes of the concert were supplied by bass-baritone Joel Allison, in Polifemo’s aria in Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. I sometimes think this is composed by a tongue-in-cheek Handel, sort of like Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio.” In other words, the composer making fun of a character. The vocal line is as close to a parody as you’d find in Baroque. Allison tackled it brilliantly, with solid basement notes and plenty of breath reserve, from a low D below the bass stave to a high A.
In her tenure as an Ensemble member, soprano Lauren Margison has developed tremendously, and she is sounding terrific these days. Here she contributed Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon,” a piece ideal for her full lyric instrument. Again, it would have been nice if she holds back a bit at the top volume-wise, something that she’s entirely capable of doing. In any case, it was lovely singing.
The last two singers were two newbies — tenor Matthew Cairns and mezzo Jamie Groote. I have heard both on multiple occasions, including the season opening preview for COC supporters just last week. Cairns’s big lyric tenor reminds me a lot of a very young Ben Heppner, in the timbre and volume of his sound. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years he goes down the same path. By that I don’t mean necessarily as a Heldentenor, but as a “juicy lyric,” the term Heppner himself used to describe his own voice early in his career. Here, Cairns sang a gorgeous, ringing “Che gelida manina,” complete with a clarion high C — Bravo!
The concert closed with Jamie Groote singing that high mezzo calling card, a paean to the power of music — “Sein wir wieder gut” from Ariadne auf Naxos. This is one of the most divine moments in opera. Those words, “Musik ist eine heilige Kunst” (music is a sacred art) never fails to give me the shivers every time. Groote sang it with just the right degree of ecstasy combined with solid vocalism, the way it should be sung. There is a hint of metal in her high forte which may not be to everyone’s taste, but I don’t mind it.
The two pianists in the concert couldn’t have been more rock solid and sympathetic, totally in sync with the singers. Rachael Kerr is highly experienced and a rock — the Ensemble is lucky to have her for a third year. Alex Soloway the newbie is off to a flying start — I loved the way he negotiated the complicated ending to the “Composer’s Aria”. There you have it, a terrific Meet the Ensemble hour, and all indications point to a very good year.