Not quite in review: Così fan tutteReview
Last night, I watched with a perma-grin as my friends and colleagues in the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio had their performance of Così fan tutte at the Four Seasons Centre. I was fortunate to have worked with some of the cast in the early stages of learning their roles, and it was an amazing experience to hear the final product. Often the long hours spent on the same score throughout a rehearsal process can dull the brain; it’s easy to forget the accomplishments and leaps forward everyone has made, and to take for granted the beauty of what’s being created. Through my time working with them, my media-privilege glimpses in rehearsals, and my personal relationships with many of the singers, I had the perfect balance of a peek inside and a blank slate with which to attend the performance. And man, did they sing their hearts out. In Act I, Aviva Fortunata and Charlotte Burrage introduced Fiordiligi and Dorabella as the perfectly relatable girls that they are; they made me laugh, and they sang superbly. As Fiordiligi, Aviva’s was some of the most impressive singing of the night. Her “Come scoglio” earned tons of applause, and rightly so; she was fierce and hilarious, all channeled through her powerful instrument. Charlotte’s Dorabella was hysterical and hilarious, throwing a perfect tantrum with her aria, “Smanie implacabili.”
Andrew Haji presented a heartfelt Ferrando, one you could tell was a good guy to the bone; his “Un aura amorosa” was bravely tender and smartly paced. Oh, and it was beautiful. Cameron McPhail’s Guglielmo was wonderfully specific, portraying a confident Guglielmo who lived large. He acted with his voice, including that ever-elusive comic timing.
In Act II, the bar remained high as we met Sasha Djihanian (Fiordiligi) and Danielle MacMillan (Dorabella), with adorable chemistry and a beautifully rich blend between their voices. They showed impressive musical maturity as they vocally negotiated the dramatically dense second act. Danielle’s singing adapted to each scene with great ease; I went crazy for the warm sound she gave in her duet with Guglielmo, and her light top range was perfect for Dorabella’s chatty aria, “È amore un ladroncello.” Sasha Djihanian also had a broad range of colour to show as Fiordiligi. She thoughtfully used every musical opportunity to develop Fiordiligi’s story, most memorable was her spectacular “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona.”
Owen McCausland, another tenor who’s easy to like onstage, continued the role of Ferrando into its most intriguing moments of conflict. I thought the difference between Owen’s and Andrew’s voice (unintentional as it may have been) actually worked very well for Ferrando’s dramatic arc. Andrew’s lighter, sunnier sound is a great set-up for Owen’s reedier, fuller tenor singing; Ferrando is a character with the potential to break the hearts of any audience, and both Andrew and Owen created an organic journey from naive optimism to weighty realizations and the hardships of hindsight. Owen sang with plenty of colour, plenty of risk, and loads of intention. He had some great virile sounds at the top, adding strength to the list of Ferrando’s traits and making us root for him even more.
As Act II’s Guglielmo, Clarence Frazer achieved another seamless and conscious continuation of Cameron’s performance in Act I. He showed us the same confidence we had come to know, and when the plot thickened, Clarence used his voice to rise to the occasion. His duet with Dorabella was sexy and honest (seems like an odd combo, but it’s true), and his “Donne mie” was crisp and athletic. He was always entertaining to watch onstage, with fantastic attention to detail in his dramatic choices. Both Cameron and Clarence showed us that Guglielmo feels rejection just as loudly as he does happiness.
The two constants throughout the night were Claire de Sévigné as Despina, and Gordon Bintner as Don Alfonso. These two were absolute professionals, and it was more than a little proud-mama thrill to watch such a polished performance from both of them. Gordon had Old English Gentleman down pat in his dapper suit and silver hair; he was vocally solid the entire night, making the most of tiny musical and textual details to make Don Alfonso the rhetorical figure that he is. In this production, director Atom Egoyan asks much from Don Alfonso as an actor, and Gordon’s portrayal of the professorial cynic was timed to a science. His Debus-inspired conducting gestures, his tiny interactions with the “students” in the chorus, and his significant glances across stage had the effect of being improvised (a tricky skill to learn).
In easily the crowd-favourite role of the night, Claire de Sévigné’s performance of Despina was just perfect. She sounded beautiful and bell-like all night, except when she decided to sing with a lisp, or in straight-tone, or any other effect one may have asked of her. Her photo-op facial expressions and superb comedy made sure she stole the audience’s attention every time she appeared onstage. Like Gordon, Claire has mastered the art of making it look natural. Pair that with her night of great singing, and you’ve got a pro.
I know from my own experience that it’s an amazing bonding experience to put up a show of this size with your friends. I was reminded last night of a feeling I often take for granted: how fortunate I am to know people that have these awesome skills. I’ll never forget the first time I stood backstage at the Four Seasons Centre and watched a friend make her entrance, her face instantly illuminated by the stage lights. The gulf between the person you had coffee with that afternoon and the artist that walks onto that stage seems suddenly so large; I am inspired to work in opera because of how it feels when that friend come back offstage and bridges that gulf, one of many times. I wonder if the COC Ensemble Intern pianist Michael Shannon felt some of the same.
So I say bravo to the whole cast. You had big shoes to fill, and instead you did something better: bring your own shoes. Congratulations!