The COC Ensemble Studio: Meet the Newbies COC General Director Alexander Neef & Music Director Johannes Debus with new Ensemble singers. Photo: Michael Cooper.

The COC Ensemble Studio: Meet the Newbies

Jenna Simeonov

Yesterday in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio kicked off the new season of the Free Concert Series. This year there are three new singers and one new pianist in the Ensemble. I’ll admit the concert wasn’t my first encounter with the COC young artists; I’ve had the opportunity to see them at work in recent weeks, but I was no less excited to hear them all sing their “introductory” arias. I’m a past member of the COC Ensemble, and I have a clear memory of how nerve-wracking this annual inaugural concert is. As refreshing and impressive as the Amphitheatre is, there’s something intimidating about the light-filled space, with the audience around and above you. For this Meet the Artists concert, the phrase “sing for Grandma” comes to mind.

The Ensemble Studio wasn’t entirely in top health (three out of the nine singers were sadly out sick), but they really are a strong group this year. The new members in particular were super exciting to hear. Bass-baritone Iain MacNeil started off with “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo” (Così fan tutte). He has a warm and clear sound, already much richer than when I heard him last, as Sid in UofT’s Albert Herring. I’m excited to hear him develop more boom in his voice; he’s off to a solid start at the COC this season.

Tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure is also a new Ensemble member, and absolutely a breath of fresh air; his rendition of “Vainement, ma bien-aimeé” (Le roi d’Ys) was, well, stunning. He sang with an open and honest sound, full of agility and ring and moments of pianissimo singing that nearly tore my heart out (#slain). His presence onstage was as warm as his singing; you really couldn’t help but love him. I know Jean-Philippe is a dedicated worker, and he’ll be someone to watch in the coming seasons.

The last of the new Ensemble members was Québec native Karine Boucher, who sang “O mio babbino caro” (Gianni Schicchi). I absolutely love Karine’s voice; it’s rich and womanly soprano sound, with a quality about it that is completely her own. When Karine sings, it’s like you can hear her guts. She’s a class act, and I can’t wait to hear more.

Three (healthy) returning Ensemble members showed off their stuff as well. Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage sang a beautiful “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto” (Roberto Devereux). Her voice sounded impressively even, with an easy top range and a gorgeous, syrupy line throughout this tricky aria. I hope she finds more bel canto rep to sing, since she sold me on this aria. Baritone Clarence Frazer indulged us with Korngold’s beautiful “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” (Die Tote Stadt). He showed off his rich sound and easy top, and I thought he sounded more robust than the last time I’d heard him.

Clarence will be singing Figaro in the Ensemble Studio’s performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia; I’m really looking forward to seeing him in something new, where he can really show his chops (half of Guglielmo in last season’s Così fan tutte only made me wish I’d heard him more).

Finally, we heard Andrew Haji sing “Questa o quella” (Rigoletto), fresh back from cleaning up at the ’s-Hertogenbosch International Vocal Competition (he won the Grand Prize, the Press Prize, and the Jury Prize: #operahattrick). Andrew still has the agility and easy in his sound, but his voice is growing fuller, and the Verdi had him sounding really virile. He has a great presence onstage, making him instantly likeable (even as the Duke); it’s so exciting to see that presence followed by truly great singing. Andrew will be singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe as part of the Free Concert Series in April; the concert will also feature Gordon Bintner, singing Schubert’s Schwanengesang, so you all should be there with bells on.

Intern pianist Jennifer Szeto played the whole concert beautifully. It’s tricky to play a string of arias, each for different singers; no matter how well a pianist and singer know each other, there’s always a moment of adjustment, especially in front of an audience. And no page-turner. Love it.

Be sure to check out the Free Concert Series as often as you can. Each Tuesday and Thursday at noon, you can hear everything from the Vocal Series to Dance, all for free and in a beautiful space. Click here for the season brochure.

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