Chorus Niagara’s 2002-2003 season got off to a roaring start Saturday night with a magnificent survey of Grand Opera’s greatest chorus hits intermixed with its most-loved arias and duets.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Sinfonia (think Niagara Symphony with a different postal code) provided valiant accompaniment even though most of its shimmer and resonance was sucked into the floor by the indoor-outdoor carpet of Calvary Church. The strings were two-rehearsals short of performance level, especially in any exposed passagework. Nonetheless, the woodwinds (with special mention to clarinetist Zoltan Kalman for his technical heroics in the Polovtsian Dances) provided more consistent support. The brass and percussion took turns adding moments of brilliance or, frustratingly, missing cues.
Artistic director Robert Cooper led his forces with flair and authority, choosing brisk tempi and no-nonsense transitions that kept the show moving merrily along. He was able to draw a wide variety of tone colours and generally held both the orchestra and chorus in sync. But I hope a video camera was at work, for it was astonishing to realize, once again, how hand and body gestures can produce such varying results. Cutting off a phrase with only the stick or a clinched fist invariably yields an unwritten bump; dropping the baton entirely and just shaping the release of the sound with the left hand produces a worlds-different effect. That was why Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco was such a standout, but also why the notoriously tricky (as I discovered years ago while making my first CBC Radio recording) Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust failed to coalesce.
But the capacity crowd kept its heartiest applause and bravos for the guests: Elizabeth McDonald, soprano, Stuart Howe, tenor and the ever-affable Stuart Hamilton whose off-the-cuff intros and observations (“when the music is sad the hero is happy; it is possible to fall in love in five minutes,”—But why not? One of them is bound to expire by the final curtain.) had the audience laughing, groaning or wondering if his bluer comments—given the venue—were entirely appropriate!
Of the two soloists, Howe had the edge. His flexibility and well-focused creamy tone were especially welcome in Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lagrima (beautifully introduced by bassoonist Joyce Besch), although it teetered on the saccharine due to his over-use of portamenti into the start of—virtually—every phrase. Earlier, his rendition of Gerald’s aria from Lakmé brought the house down; and deservedly so. Howe’s compelling presence, immaculate diction and ability to soar above the fray were the highlights of the night.
Elizabeth McDonald is an artist with many skill sets and a terrific stage presence. Her best outing was the beautifully-controlled Regina Coeli from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. But in both her Puccini offerings (solo in Butterfly’s Entrance (Madama Butterfly) and with Howe in the repertoire’s best-loved duet (O Soave Fanciulla)), her pitch was, too often for comfort, just a tad short of true—particularly in the upper regions. And that is what may have prompted Howe to decline joining her for the final top C, which was double the pity.
For its part, Chorus Niagara filled the room with a full-bodied, mature tone which—at full-cry—thrilled us all. Diction (with so many languages in one night!) was quite good, with only the final consonants of the German in Wagner’s Bridal Chorus needing polish. Occasionally, in the quieter sections, I wished that they would end their phrases with diaphragm support instead of pushing from the throat. Perhaps if the acoustics had been able to provide some real reverberation, the need to declaim rather than reveal would have given us many more moments of subtle beauty. Oh for a hall in Niagara that was designed, first, for music!
If this program was an example of the fine music-making that has been emanating from Chorus Niagara for the past forty years, then here’s to decades more! JWR