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JUST IN | 2015 Christina and Louis Quilico Vocal Competition Crowns Three Winners

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Photo: Chris Hutcheson
L-R: Christina Petrowska Quilico, ontario arts foundation executive director Alan Walker, with winners Karine Boucher, Gordon Bintner, Charlotte Burrage and COC GM Alexander Neef. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

2015 Christina and Louis Quilico Awards, February 9 at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre

For diehard voice fans, there’s nothing like a vocal competition. You get to hear (and see) young artists strutting their stuff, striving for fame and glory, not to mention prize money. The Christina and Louis Quilico Awards is a competition with a twist – it’s only open to current Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio members. The 2014-15 COC Ensemble Roster is a particularly strong one with some wonderful singers, so this promised to be good. The event took place last evening at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. Sadly, illness prevented tenor Andrew Haji from competing, and fellow tenor Owen McCausland was out in Victoria singing Arturo in Pacific Opera Victoria’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor. But the rest of the Ensemble was out in full force and it proved to be a highly enjoyable evening.

As competitions go, the format of the Quilico Awards is very simple. Each candidate submits three selections, of which two would be performed. One would be the singer’s choice and jury panel chooses one from the remaining two selections. This year, the jury panel was headed by COC General Director Alexander Neef. The guest panelists are Stuart Hamilton and John Hess. After brief opening remarks by Alexander Neef and Ontario Arts Foundation Executive Director Alan Walker, the competition proceeded in earnest:

Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure (tenor)
“Vainement, ma bien aimée” Le roi d’Ys (Lalo)
“Ecco ridente” Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)
Jennifer Szeto, piano

Fortier-Lazure’s voice is the stereotypical tenore di grazia, a compact sized instrument with a sweet, soft-grained and warm timbre. He has a particularly mellifluous head voice that has served him well. I’ve heard him sing the Lalo aria on several occasions, and it shows off his voice beautifully. He sang it well once again. Perhaps it was nerves resulted from having to go first, he struggled in the Almaviva’s aria with the high notes, and his runs were not ideally clean. I think for Jean-Philippe, the voice is good in the French repertoire naturally but also potentially good in bel canto with further work and the building up of his vocal stamina.

Clarence Frazer (baritone)
“Largo al factotum” Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)
“Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” Die tote Stadt (Korngold)
Jennifer Szeto, piano

Frazer sang very well in the competition, the best I’ve heard him. His Largo al factotum was sung with impressively robust tone. He also acted with plenty of swagger. Fritz’s aria requires absolutely firm legato and accuracy of pitch. This is a piece I’ve heard him sing before, and he has improved each time. I find his voice – and in particular his vibrato – to be better in the upper range, not as heavy and pronounced as in the middle and lower registers. He has made huge progress in the time he’s been with the Ensemble, and undoubtedly a singer to watch.

Aviva Fortunata (soprano)
“Come in quest’ora bruna” Simon Boccanegra (Verdi)
“Non mi dir” Don Giovanni (Mozart)
Jennifer Szeto, piano

Fortunata is blessed with a gorgeous voice of richness and amplitude, with excellent squillo. She can make a big, well-focused sound, as evidenced in her current gig as Helmwige in Die Walkure – the high B’s and C’s hold no terror for her. Both Amelia’s and Anna’s arias were lovely, with good sense of pitch and rich tone. However, perhaps the Wagner gig has put the voice into a somewhat different zone – I find it a bit too much forte. The Boccanegra should be softer, with more use of piano, including a diminuendo high B at the end before the descending vocal line. Still it was nicely done. Her coloratura in Non mi dir was exceptional for such a big voice. Also I should say her hairdo and gown were both stunning. Aviva Fortunata has great potential given her exceptional voice, particularly suitable in the Italian and bel canto repertoire. She is definitely a singer with a great future.

Iain MacNeil (bass-baritone)
“Aprite un po’quegl’occhi” Le nozze di Figaro (Mozart)
“O du mein holder Abenstern” Tannhauser (Wagner)
Michael Shannon, piano

New to the Ensemble this year, Iain MacNeil has an attractive bass-baritone that’s warm and ingratiating, plus a very good stage presence. He sang the Figaro aria very nicely although I would have liked a bit more steadiness to his tone. He also sang the Wolfram aria well, but he wasn’t helped by the slow tempo, which taxed his ability to sustain the legato line and the pitch accuracy in the inherent chromaticism of the piece.

Charlotte Burrage (mezzo)
Sara’s aria Roberto Devereux (Donizetti)
Composer’s Aria Ariadne auf Naxos (Strauss)
Michael Shannon, piano

Charlotte Burrage has a beautifully focused high mezzo, with excellent sense of pitch and a lively vibrato that is suitable in both Italian as well as German repertoires. The Roberto Devereux aria was very well sung, with lovely tone and nice legato, a few minor errant pitches notwithstanding. The Composer’s Aria really showed off her brilliant high register, with all the notes attacked square on and proper note values observed. To my ears, her slightly metallic timbre is particularly good in Strauss and the German things. If I were to quibble, I find the soloist and the piano not always together in the Strauss, perhaps due to insufficient rehearsal? It would have been preferable for the tempo to pick up near the end – it’s a paean to music, an aria of ecstasy! Still, a job well done.

Photo: Chris Hutcheson
pianist, Michael Shannon; soprano Karine Boucher Photo: Chris Hutcheson

Karine Boucher (soprano)
Marietta’s Lied Die tote Stadt (Korngold)
“Sombre forêt” Guillaume Tell (Rossini)
Michael Shannon, piano

Boucher has an appealingly warm and substantial soprano coupled with a knockout stage presence. I’ve heard her sing Marietta’s Lied several times before, and her voice has just the right weight and timbre for this music. She sang it beautifully once again, although I would have preferred a bit more dynamic variation. The same can be said with Mathilde’s aria, lovely, but this piece needs a high pianissimo. Boucher is a very gifted and musical singer, and I liked everything she does, the only thing missing is a greater dynamic range and a high piano. I seem to remember she had a lovely shimmering upper voice when I first heard her. The colour of her sound seems to have darkened a bit in the last two years. She is an ideal Contessa, and she would be a good Mathilde as well with further study.

Gordon Bintner (bass-baritone)
“Vedro mentr’io sospiro” Le nozze di Figaro (Mozart)
“O du mein holder Abendstern” Tannhauser (Wagner)
Michael Shannon, piano

To my ears, Gordon Bintner is the “complete singer” – warm and generous bass-baritone without a cutting edge, firm technique, remarkable musicality, abundant theatrical flair and princely stage presence. His solid technique means he seems to be always “on”. Interesting that he sang the Count’s aria here, which is usually sung by a lyric baritone, not a bass-baritone. I find the tessitura a bit high for him and this aria doesn’t really show off his gorgeous tone. The final high note didn’t have the usual bloom associated with this singer. That said, Bintner is certainly capable of a fine Count. Like MacNeil, the Wolfram aria was taken at too plodding a tempo, which made it harder for the singer to sustain the legato, with occasional unsteadiness creeping in. But overall, it was a fine piece of singing.

With the performances coming to an end, the jury members were sequestered for a remarkably short 15 minutes of deliberation. They returned to announce the winners – Karine Boucher won the $5,000 First Prize, Gordon Bintner $3,000 Second Prize, and Charlotte Burrage $2,000 Third Prize. The level of singing was very high and there could easily be a couple more singers deserving of an award, but it is what it is! Congratulations to the winners – they sang beautifully and were fully deserving of the accolades.

Photo: Chris Hutcheson
L-R: Iain MacNeil, Aviva Fortunata, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, Karine Boucher, Clarence Frazer, Charlotte Burrage, Gordon Bintner, Jennifer Szeto, Michael Shannon. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

Joseph So

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