Russell, Tamara, Johannes and Perryn take us for a test-drive

If asked to identify the two most reliable performers for the Canadian Opera Company over the past decade, you might well come up with the singers chosen to launch the COC’s “season like no other”.

I remember Russell Braun’s Chou En Lai from Nixon in China on the Met high definition broadcast a little over ten years ago, as though it were just yesterday. I still think of Russell’s voice as youthful, as apt for Prince Andrei (in War and Peace), Pelléas, Ford (in Falstaff), or Louis Riel, even though he can also play a mature role such as Don Alfonso in Cosi fan tutte. It’s a given that he’ll bring dramatic intelligence to whatever he sings, the focus of whatever he does for the COC.

Baritone Russell Braun

Tamara Wilson has emerged as a star on the world stage, and we were fortunate to watch her development here in Toronto. Like Russell, she’s often at the dramatic heart of whatever she’s doing, not just a beautiful voice. While the pandemic made us miss her Aida, we did get her Turandot and Desdemona, two recent high marks at the COC.

For my money, the real leader of the COC over the past decade has been their music director Johannes Debus, as the orchestra has fearlessly undertaken the most challenging works. We hear a remarkable versatility, in the subtleties of Handel or Mozart, the endurance tests of Wagner’s Ring or Tristan und Isolde¸ 20th century scores such as Peter Grimes, Louis Riel, Elektra or Dialogues of the Carmelites. Whatever the orchestra is doing the singers are in good hands, as are the composers. And we the listeners have been blessed.

This trio of Tamara, Russell, Johannes (leading the COC orchestra of course), with Perryn Leech as our master of ceremonies, took us for a test drive of the new virtual Four Seasons Centre. Government funding has given us –speaking of Canada collectively—the ability to watch and listen to concerts and operas at the Four Seasons Centre that used to require your attendance in person.

COC General Director Perryn Leech as our M.C.

What does it sound like, I wondered…?

When I used to buy stereo equipment, I’d go to the store, perhaps carrying a record or two along, to audition the systems. When you buy a car you take it for a test-drive, to see what it feels like when you step on the gas, turn a corner, push the brakes.

The concert from the COC is like our test drive or our audition, to find out what it looks like and feels like.

We assume that the COC has expertise:
-all those singers who know how to sing a high note or a low note, in English, Italian, German, French, Russian, Czech, Hungarian,…
-all those orchestral musicians playing
-all those costumes & sets designed and built to tell a story

But the technicians recording and transmitting the performance from the Four Seasons Centre?

At the controls

Perhaps they have had a chance to practice. Even so they are still getting accustomed to their new toy. This concert is more than a test drive, more than a dress rehearsal. They need to know how to shift gears, how to handle the equivalent to potholes in the road. While you might prefer to slow your car down, this is a high-performance situation. The soprano must hit that loud high note. How do you capture that without distortion? What microphones or cameras capture that best? Are there sweet spots on the stage where the acoustic is a bit better or worse? Does it matter whether they’ve put a set behind the singer, or whether the orchestra is blasting along at the same time..? You only find that out by using the space, the musicians, the voices: and hearing the results. Perhaps the hall itself should be thought of as another instrument that the technicians will be playing, with interpretive choices to be made, as a producer mixing a recording faces choices. Do you push the bass to give it oomph, or perhaps the treble to help us discern the details of the text or the textures of the orchestra? Is it better with fewer microphones?

This is also your chance to try it out, especially if we’re missing the place, missing opera. There is no audience visible, no applause to be heard. Not for the first time, I am thinking that the canned laughter & applause for television back in the 50s & 60s wasn’t so dumb, in seeking to make the experience a bit more real. I used to think that their intention was to persuade us that Lucy and Ricky were funny. But now I’m thinking they also wanted us to accept the televised reality, as a performance for an audience, which is just as important. If I hear vissi d’arte without applause, have I really heard the aria? The sound of an audience as a presence in the theatre, receiving and enjoying the performance validates the reality, as a part of live opera.

But the cameras and microphones offer compensations, closeup opportunities we would never have in a live setting.

I was delighted at the choice of “Dich teure Halle” as the first piece to be sung.

Soprano Tamara Wilson, Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra

Elisabeth’s aria speaks for all of us in her enthusiasm to be back in her beloved hall of singing: aka Four Seasons Centre. Tamara’s joy seemed genuine.

Soprano Tamara Wilson

The camera panning the hall at the end was perfectly appropriate, even if I wish we had a full hall instead. But that’s in the future. For now we will have to be content with the online version available online until Friday, March 25, 2022. Tickets for the in-person offerings (three operas February – May 2022) go on sale October 14th. You can find the virtual concert and discover more about the COC’s upcoming programming at their website, coc.ca.

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2 Responses to Russell, Tamara, Johannes and Perryn take us for a test-drive

  1. Edward Brain says:

    Thanks for a wonderful review of the concert, Leslie!

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