Ensemble Studio shines in a lackluster Evening
One of the most hyped events of any year at the Canadian Opera Company is the annual evening dedicated to the artists of the Ensemble Studio. After a season spent singing small roles, understudying, assisting music staff, and performing at countless ancillary events, the young singers and pianists of the Ensemble are thrust into the spotlight for a singular night of focus.
In some years, the event has been a special performance of an ongoing COC mainstage production, cast with Ensemble artists; other times, the event has taken on more of a gala feel. This year's An Evening With the Ensemble Studio stood somewhere in between, with a first half full of scenes from Mozart's Così fan tutte, and a second half a complete performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.
Whatever its form, this annual event is meant to show off what these artists do best. It's clear that the Ensemble Studio features seven excellent young voices and two industrious pianists. With that said, An Evening With the Ensemble Studio seemed to show that what these young artists do best is prosper under the oddest of onstage circumstances.
With the backdrop of the Benoit Durgardyn's sets for the COC's production of Anna Bolena, the COC Orchestra under Music Director Johannes Debus started the show with the overture to Così fan tutte, presumably putting us in the mood for what would be four scenes from Act I. Well sung as they were, the scenes were careless selections, giving not even an abridged idea of the opera's plot. There was a clear aim to feature specific singers in roles that suit them, so I won't say they were chosen entirely thoughtlessly. Yet the programming made for a blunt beginning to the night, throwing the Ensemble Studio into a performance that felt forced and without context. The singing was polished, but there was simply no "show" of which the young artists could be a part.
The second half was more organic, helped greatly by the fact that Dido and Aeneas was presented as the complete, self-contained work that it is. It had me thinking of all the options that could be paired with something like Dido - instead of the surface-level decision to place these voices into the roles of Così fan tutte - that might have given us a better glimpse of what makes the Ensemble Studio the cream of Canada's young crop of singers.
Why not a simple double-bill? A chamber opera? Perhaps even pairing a one-act opera with a staged concert of vocal chamber music? Stuff like Zemlinsky's "Maiblumen blühten überall", Chausson's "Chanson perpétuelle", Barber's Dover Beach, Poulenc's Le bal masqué or Thomas Adès' Life Story? Or even Lee Hoiby's Bon Appetit! (based on the legendary Julia Child)?
No, these picks aren't all opera - but these young artists aren't strictly operatic. The Ensemble Studio are an integral part of the Canadian Opera Company, but they're also versatile artists with oodles to offer onstage - just like the professional singers they shadow throughout the season.
There was excellent singing and playing onstage, and memorable performances by the COC's impressive young artists. When I expected a night devoted to showing off their skills, I couldn't help but consider the Ensemble Studio, at a disadvantage with their unimaginative programming, a little bit short-changed.