The 2015 Quilico Awards Chris Hutcheson

The 2015 Quilico Awards

Jenna Simeonov

Last night the members of the COC Ensemble Studio competed in the Christine and Louis Quilico Awards, in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre. From my own experience with the 2013 Quilico Awards, I know that this intra-Ensemble competition can be tough on the singers. The winter and spring segments of the COC season have a packed schedule; the young artists are rehearsed and coached by day, and singing in the mainstage shows by night. It's inspiring and exhausting work, and it's hard to find the additional focus needed for a competition like this. The Quilico Awards are unique in that the young artist singers compete internally, during some of the most high-paced, high-stakes years of their careers so far. I'm historically terrible at making the call on competitions (I assume if I were a judge on a panel, I'd be the "difficult" one). It's even more of a crapshoot when all the singers competing are in the middle of big technical and professional changes. I know the Ensemble Studio singers are a tough bunch, and they don't need my empathy; my heart does go out to them, though, because they're worked hard and competing against your closest colleagues (and probably friends) is hard.

The short version of the story is that three prizes were handed out: Soprano Karine Bouchertook first prize, bass-baritone Gordon Bintner took second, and mezzo Charlotte Burragewon third.

Karine sang with that unique, warm, and consistently beautiful sound that I always love to hear, and her red gown was fab. She started with Marietta's Lied from Die Tote Stadt, but really shone with the judge's next pick, "Sombre forêt" from Rossini's Guillaume Tell. I knew Karine could deliver gorgeous sound, but her smooth coloratura took me by surprise.

Karine Boucher, soprano, and pianist Michael Shannon. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

Gordon started with a stoic, calm rendition of the Count's Aria from Le nozze di Figaro, and then judges asked for some sustained singing via "O du, mein holder Abendstern" from Tannhäuser. I thought the Count was a great choice for him, and I was surprised to see how still Gordon was while he sang; it's a wise decision to let one's technique do the work, especially in competition, and that may have been his plan. I wanted a bit more fire from the Count, but Gordon sang it smart.

Charlotte Burrage opened with Sara's aria from Roberto Devereux, something that's become a staple in her aria list, with good reason. I was glad the judges asked for the Komponist from Ariadne auf Naxos next, because the night needed a little steroid boost amongst all the (beautiful!) bel canto. Charlotte wowed the audience with a fierce top in the Strauss, and I heard signs of a growing voice in the Donizetti. Exciting stuff.

l-r: Christina Petrowska Quilico, Ontario Arts Foundation Executive Director Alan Walker, with winners Karine Boucher, Gordon Bintner, Charlotte Burrage, and COC General Director Alexander Neef.

On top of the judges' call, there were plenty of musical highlights from the Ensemble Studio. Tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure started with one of his go-to arias, "Vainement, ma bien-aimée"; the innocent energy about him always gets to me when he sings this aria. BaritoneClarence Frazer showed off a pretty solid "Largo al factotum", which sounds grounded, all the buffo stuff staying rooted in a calm technique. It bodes well for him in the title role for the Ensemble Studio performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia in May. Bass-baritone Iain MacNeil sang a strong "Aprite un po' quegl'occhi" from Le nozze di Figaro, which tells me that he'll be juggling Mozart roles for seasons to come. If I have one complaint, it's that soprano Aviva Fortunata wasn't awarded a prize. Her "Come in quest'ora bruna", from Simon Boccanegra, rang through the amphitheatre like nothing we'd heard yet that night, and she gave us opera-sized drama. The judges asked next for "Non mi dir" from Don Giovanni, and I think it was this combo of aria and size of voice that was responsible for Aviva's getting passed by for a prize. Frankly, I was wowed by the control in her Mozart, and thought to myself that hearing Aviva sing Donna Anna with an orchestra, instead of a piano, would have been an entirely different story. The Amphitheatre is an immediate, live space, and it's not the kind of space in which Verdi voices train to sing; it lets us hear those voices in a way that's akin to looking at a slide on a microscope. It's fascinating and exposing, but not quite the full picture.

Sadly, tenor Andrew Haji was out with the flu, and didn't sing. He had "Tarquinius does not wait" from The Rape of Lucretia on his list, and I was eager to hear him sing that.

Kudos are also due to pianists Jennifer Szeto and Michael Shannon for playing beautifully all evening.

For more with the Ensemble Studio, make sure you grab tickets to their performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia, May 15, 2015.

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