An Evening With the Ensemble Studio is a special opportunity. It’s interesting to get a closer look at the members of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio. For most of the year they’re confined to small roles in the mainstage productions, but on a night such as this they take on bigger roles, a taste of prime-time. And for us, it’s the chance to see so much more of what they can do, their potential realized. We see that they’re ready.
In past years this meant a performance cast with Ensemble members, but beginning in 2017 they’re doing a showcase in formal attire instead, a new concept that I think they are still figuring out: as in, sometimes it works and sometimes, not so much.
There were two parts to tonight’s show. After intermission we saw one of the glories of the operatic stage, namely Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas in a well-conceived production that didn’t require costumes but did entail some clever use of the Anna Bolena set (designed by Benoit Dugardyn), a production that stands with some of the best work I’ve seen from the COC. I loved it so much possibly because it was so much better than what we’d seen before the intermission.
We began with a series of scenes from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte that pale in comparison to the tight organic performance of Dido. It was the same group of singers before & after intermission, sounding marvelous on the whole and accompanied by the COC Orchestra led by Johannes Debus. If you ask me (and nobody did), if opting to present only part of an opera, the choice of scenes needs to be more carefully thought out than on this occasion, as the Cosi scenes were to my eye rather awkward. We began in media res, handing things to a character who is always liked –Despina—while expecting the four lovers to grab us without any exposition, no chance to create a through line either with us or for them with their character. I think this choice was simply too difficult for the singers, and of dubious value in the creation of a micro-characterization.
But let me get back to Purcell, the wonderful and indeed indestructible Dido. Every moment was gold, the orchestra sounding delicate & committed. In fact part of my problem with the Mozart might be that I felt it was a bit brusque, barely intelligible, whereas I caught every syllable of every word in the Purcell: something that owes as much to Debus’s sensitive ear as to the enunciation of the singers. Was Debus preoccupied, perhaps mindful of a farewell he would be making to some of the members of the orchestra? Of course there is value in the experience, as singers tell horror stories of unsympathetic conductors (part of the job, right?). They mostly kept it together. All I know is that everything was a thousand times better after the interval, although the fact we were dealing with a complete work in a well-conceived production, surely had a lot to do with it. In the program one sees “Dramatic Consultant –Anna Theodosakis”, leading me to wonder how this was done. No actual director credit? Were the Ensemble Members only getting advice without actual direction? Ah well. ‘Tis a mystery.
And hindsight is 20-20 of course.
There were some wonderfully original touches such as the meta-theatrical choice to have Dido onstage watching the witches, as though they were haunting her dreams. And while this wasn’t a period approach, when Lauren Eberwein said “remember me” staring directly into Danika Lorèn’s face, I totally lost it. The two of them had genuine star power throughout the evening, Loren effortlessly switching from the wackiness of Despina to the darker shades of Belinda. I was mindful too of the question of vocal type, after having heard Keri Alkema’s thoughts just a few days ago about changing from a mezzo-soprano to a soprano. Eberwein herself has made such a switch (notice that she’s called “soprano” in the COC photo credit) even though Dido is usually understood to be a mezzo role: but embellished by some higher notes.
Everyone had their moments though. Bruno Roy was strong as both Don Alfonso & Aeneas, Megan Quick dominating the stage as the Sorceress, Samantha Pickett & Simone McIntosh delightful in their witchy machinations (and which seemed so much more fun than what they were given to do as Fiordiligi & Dorabella), aided and abetted by Samuel Chan who then slipped into the sailor’s role (although everyone was in formal attire).
Maybe I ask too much, but I think less is more. If I had only seen Dido tonight I would have been more impressed by the COC’s Ensemble Studio than what I saw. Yet it’s a work in progress. It will be interesting to see what they’ll do next year.