Toronto Opera Collaborative is an ensemble comprised of emerging artists. As the pool of Canadian talent continues to grow, singers must either compete for the few available roles, or in groups such as TOC create their own opportunities to show us what they can do. That they chose to present a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio—a work that can be daunting to cast— was a rewarding choice for the audience at Bloor St United Church last night.
As an accompanist with a singer in the family, I’ve always had a strong sense that opera is both a dramatic vehicle to be presented in the theatre, and a series of opportunities to display your skills. When one has the specialized instrument that is the dramatic voice, it is particularly frustrating, when such works are presented so rarely.
Kristine Dandavino & Jason Lamont, who undertook the leads, are the two founders of TOC. I can’t help thinking that in an opera world overflowing with Verdi & Puccini, their partnership begins with the mutual awareness of their special voices & the need to find special vehicles for them.
While I understand that Dandavino assumed the role of Leonore on behalf of another singer, there was no sense of an understudy, considering the star power she brought to her portrayal. Dandavino has a generous voice that she employed with a restrained subtlety to match her portrayal. Taking us through a broad range of emotions, from the awkward comic love triangle, through her fears for her husband, the suspenseful rescue & their loving reconciliation, Dandavino gave one of the most convincing and accomplished realizations of a character I’ve ever seen in a concert performance.
Although Jason Lamont has a name that sounds more like that of an old-time Hollywood matinee idol than a heldentenor, he has the potential to be a genuine star. Nothing exemplifies the duality between the vocal showcase & drama better than the aria with which Florestan opens Act II, namely “Gott! Welch dunkel hier!” The moment is suspenseful as we wonder whether Florestan will be murdered either by his captors or by the musical demands. Some singers duck the challenge by singing with such a light voice that they’re crooning their way through portions, to save their voice for the big moments.
Lamont bravely brought so much voice that I was astonished that he had so much left, a dark & muscular sound. Given the worldwide shortage of genuine heroic tenors in the world, I will be watching closely to see what roles he takes on next, whether through TOC or elsewhere.
The vocal excellence doesn’t end there.
Michael Robert-Broder continues to surprise with his remarkable voice & choices of repertoire. In late September I raved about his stunning Hunding in Die Walküre yet – believe it or not not—he sang a very stylish Pelléas in February 2011. Pizarro is a role that I’ve long wondered about, that is, if it really is to be understood as a well-written creation. In most productions Pizarro is a nasty blustering bully without subtlety or rationale, often loud & strident, and usually unpleasant to listen to. Imagine my surprise, listening to Robert-Broder finding music in this role, singing phrases that I usually hear snarled or barked. Robert-Broder has the smooth mellifluous baritone of a Gerald Finley or a Hermann Prey, used to great advantage last night. At times I was reminded of such smiling tyrants we’ve seen in the world, such as Putin or Ahmadinejad. It’s the most musical Pizarro I’ve ever heard, and revises my previous assessment (that the role is two-dimensional and melodramatic) and finds new depths in Beethoven’s creation.
The other standout portrayal was Marion Samuel-Steven as Marzelline. Hers is a nuanced soubrette capable of power and gravitas. Every phrase she sung, every moment on stage was in the moment, well thought out, and a significant contribution to the success of the evening.
Stephen Bell sang an attractive Jaquino, frustrated by Marzelline’s preferences. Grant Allert was a salt of the earth Rocco, contrasting Robert-Broder’s tyranny, and Kenneth Baker was a suitably stern Don Fernando, arriving in the nick of time.
There was an additional air of drama to the proceedings because the music director was unavailable at the last moment, requiring the capable Bill Shookhoff to step in as a substitute pianist. His was a Mozartean reading that always respected the singers.
Although this production of Fidelio used no chorus, and summarized the action rather than included dialogue, we were propelled along through the magic of Beethoven.
I will be interested to see what TOC’s next offering will be.