Mezzo qua, mezzo là, mezzo su, mezzo giù

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(l-r) Samantha Pickett, Bruno Roy, Lauren Eberwein, Pascale Spinney, Marjorie Maltais, Eliza Johnson, COC MD Johannes Debus, Emily D’Angelo, COC GM Alexander Neef, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Centre Stage, the ensemble studio competition, took place this Tuesday at the FSC in two parts: the private audition before the judging panel, and the public part with the full COC orchestra. I could only make the latter part this year–so my thoughts are about the public performances only.

There were four mezzo finalists, exceptionally, this time, alongside two sopranos and two baritones. The excitement was dampened by the fact that two of the mezzos sang Gounod in the public part of the competition. They are all fine voices with a lot of promise. Pascale Spinney’s “Faites-lui mes aveux” was too short and too cute (not to mention too Gounod) to allow me to form any proper judgment. I see she sang Dido’s Lament in the private audition, which would have been a more exciting choice for the big stage. Mezzo Marjorie Maltais also kept the fireworks for the private audition: “Non piu mesta”, the final aria of Cenerentola. On stage, she sang “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Gounod’s R&J. It’s a sweet aria that has some dramatic variety and allows the singer to show off her French. What was most appealing about Maltais’ performance is that she was visibly free and playful with it. She was also showing nascent signs of that all-important thing in a singer, a style. I’d really like to see what Maltais and Spinney do with proper roles on stage—perhaps next year we can see the contestants in mini-scenes of duos or trios?

The two mezzos who took the first and the second prize sang in Italian: Emily D’Angelo (“Contro un cor” from Il Barbiere) and Lauren Eberwein (“Parto” from La Clemenza). D’Angelo showcased a flawless coloratura, appealing timbre, and loads of charm. Rosina and Cherubino (she sang “Voi che sapete” in the private audition) however are the safest bet for any light mezzo—each aria already comes with a personality that just needs to be honoured and recreated, rather than invented out of one’s own resources. She is undeniably a remarkable singer already: the choice of arias, however, could have been more daring.

Whereas Lauren Eberwein’s choice definitely was: the second place winner sang Sesto’s “Parto, parto” and in audition Komponist’s “Sein wir wieder gut” from Ariadne. She imbued Sesto’s every line with meaning and compassion, there was no hamming, no illogical arm movement (an all-too frequent occurrence in singing competitions). Dramatically, it doesn’t get better and more stage-ready than this. Musically, more colours could have been added: the voice settled early on into the darker, a bit closed, a bit throaty hue. Perhaps more freedom in inflection was the only thing left to work on.

If there was an award for visual presentation, Eberwein would have won it in a blink: she was gorgeous and smartly composed, the look reminiscent of Tilda Swinton, even showing some edge—as much edge as the COC Ensemble Studio competition allows. (Which is not a lot, alas.) Which brings me to the following question: are the female competitors dressed and styled by a specific person in charge of that sort of thing? D’Angelo and Eberwein wore similar outfits, while Spinney, Maltais and soprano Eliza Johnson had fabric and cuts in common, the body-shaping, tight lace gowns that from afar look like they’ve been crocheted. Men have it easier, of course—they all sing in the black-tie uniform and nobody is distracted by what they wear. I wish women too had a neutral clothing option that would set them on relatively equal footing visually in competitions.

But that’s an old topic and by-the-bye and let’s put it aside for now.

What I wanted to end with is my personal favourite of the night. Amid the embarrassment of the mezzo riches, I found myself moved the most by a soprano. I know! Inexcusable and inexplicable to this mezzo maniac. Eliza Johnson’s “Caro nome” had that special mix of technical mastery and emotional oomph that only best performances have—control and vulnerability, studiousness and rawness. The Ensemble is not in search of a soprano this year, so she was not a favourite to win; her visual presentation was not as slick and her dress wasn’t as flattering (she should ignore whoever dressed her and get her Adele on, a singer she already resembles). But by Jove, there’s a real artist in there. I can’t wait to hear her again.

What about the dudes, you ask — were there any dudes in that competition? No idea, where they?

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(l-r) Alexander Neef, Lauren Eberwein, Emily D’Angelo, Eliza Johnson, Bruno Roy, the Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Samantha Pickett, Marjorie Maltais, Zachary Read, Pascale Spinney, Johannes Debus. Photo by Michael Cooper.
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Lauren Eberwein (second prize), Emily D’Angelo (first prize), Bruno Roy (third prize), COC Ensemble Competition. Photo by Michael Cooper.
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