(not quite) In review: The COC Ensemble Studio's Barber of SevilleReview
After much hype and much rehearsal, the young artists of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio had their go at The Barber of Seville on the Four Seasons Centre Stage. This is a yearly offering for the Ensemble Studio; for one performance a year, they step into the roles of a mainstage production, which they’ve also been following as understudies. As much as there’s the obvious hard work involved, this performance is always a bit special. The audience is filled with family and friends of the cast, and everyone is aware that we’re seeing a very tangible product of these young singers’ growing skills. Because I’m one of these invested friends (and I got to see a few previews of the show) I won’t attempt to give an unbiased review of the show.
Baritone Clarence Frazer was lucky enough to get a few extra performances of Figaro in the last week, having stepped in twice for Joshua Hopkins. The comfort was visible throughout the show, plus I think Clarence really likes being Figaro. He sounds the best I’ve heard him yet, and he embraced the aesthetic of the production by Joan Font and Els Comediants. Big gestures, light on his feet, finding all the humour among the singing.
Charlotte Burrage sang her first coloratura role as Rosina; she too sounded the best I’ve heard her. She had an easy top and warm low notes. I heard a lot of growth in Charlotte’s voice; the lightness she used for her coloratura had some beautiful effects on the rest of her singing. Rosina was a great catalyst for Charlotte’s acting, too, and she showed us that mezzos can be funny.
Tenors Andrew Haji and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure shared the role of Count Almaviva. I think it’s great that the COC Ensemble opens up important roles like this to more than one singer who could benefit from the experience. I’ve noticed, though, that this is the second Ensemble show in a row where the second set of castmates shows up just as their characters are supposed to be in disguise (last year’s Così fan tutte feature two sets of lovers, hilariously complicated in a meta way by the fact that the men are dressed up as Albanians, and also new people). Quite a test for the audience’s pre-show homework.
That said, both Haji and Fortier-Lazure suited Almaviva in entirely different ways. Haji has a clear, growing ring to his sound, which he negotiated wisely in his impressive coloratura. Jean-Philippe made his mainstage debut in Act II, and he was a total riot. I loved how he moved as “Don Alonso”, loved the air-piano bit, and I thought he had great comic chops. He has a throatier, darker sound than Haji, which I thought made him a particularly endearing Count.
As is often the case, the supporting roles were total gems. It was great to hear Jan Vaculik outside of the COC Chorus; he boasted a beautiful baritone sound as Fiorello and the Officer. Karine Boucher was sassy and bored as Berta, and she sang that annoyingly tricky aria with a funny version of her beautiful sound. Gordon Bintner was a total hoot as Don Basilio; you can tell Gordon has a dance background; he moved in such an overly-graceful, cartoon-like way, leading with his long legs or even longer prosthetic nose. His “La calunnia” was flawless. Iain MacNeil as Bartolo was a highlight for me. He had total ease in Italian, which basically solves 80% of the problems with this unforgiving role. Iain has grown enormously during this first year of his in the Ensemble Studio; this is a big task to give an artist of his age, and Iain admirably stepped up to the plate.
I say bravi to the whole gang for a) a great show, and b) pulling it off with enormous amounts of hard work, taking notes from everyone and their mother, and just one rehearsal on the stage with orchestra. The Ensemble’s journey from rehearsal day one to show night is arguably more difficult to pull off than the mainstage cast. Ensemblers, you deserve lots of sleep and a few beverages of your choice. Congrats, all!