The Cathedral Arts Series at Christ Church Cathedral wound down its season Saturday night with an evening of famous opera arias and duets. Soprano Katherine Whyte and tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure were given carte blanche to program whatever they liked. The resulting menu skewed heavily and conventionally Italian, with a sprinkling of French and English bonbons thrown in for good measure.
With operatic offerings few and far between in Ottawa, you would have expected a larger audience. Perhaps the conflict with Seventeen Voyces’ production of Venus and Adonis was a factor — I can only hope they had a fuller house.
Of the two singers, Whyte had the more impressive and reliable instrument. The voice is large and brilliant, edging into dramatic coloratura territory with a full, expressive vibrato, excellent extension above high C, tightly handled runs, and a smoldering, sensual chest register. Whyte certainly set off all the requisite Verdian fireworks in Sempre Libera (Traviata) and Caro Nome (Rigoletto) and her Chi bel sogno from Puccini’s La Rondine offered luscious lines and exquisitely floated high notes.
However, singers can sometimes struggle with the dramatic dilemmas of presenting opera arias in recital: should they be acted out fully? Sung straight? Something in between? This is where Whyte was led astray. Her gestures and facial expressions were not only overdone for the venue and small audience, they were sometimes at odds with the music.
Ah, je res — the famous Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust — was a case in point. Instead of a pious, virginal “good girl” wonderingly succumbing to vanity for the first time in her life, we were treated to a campy, confident, look-at-me display worthy of Manon’s Gavotte or Glitter and be Gay. The same was true of Floyd’s Ain’t it a pretty night, rapturously sung but eccentrically mimed, with Whyte channeling Celine Dion by repeatedly smacking herself in the chest, and wagging her pointer finger at the sky. It was all very overwrought.
The more restrained, natural Fortier-Lazure seemed to have a moderating influence, as she curbed her worst excesses in their duets. Their scene together from Verdi’s Falstaff was a pleasure to watch and a delight to hear. But elsewhere, Fortier-Lazure, who is appearing in Louis Riel at the NAC later in June, was inconsistent.
In Il mio tesoro (Nozze), his support seemed to simply collapse, and too many extra breaths broke up the phrasing in Handel’s Where’er you walk. Some high notes broke apart, but others were astonishingly good, ringing and multicoloured. Quanto e bella and Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore oozed Italian romance — Fortier-Lazure’s Nemorino would be worth seeing. But his Sei il mio nome (Barbiere) was so wishy-washy it would have put poor Rosina to sleep instead of seducing her. His highlight of the evening was the lilting Gounod Serenade. Although the shift into head voice was not always smooth, and I thought his arpeggios could have been lighter and more graceful, he delivered it with tons of charm and tender-hearted feeling. This French chanson is usually performed by baritones, and it’s always refreshing to hear it done by a tenor — the effect is more youthful and innocent.
The able Matthew Larkin accompanied the singers, and even pitched in on recitative duty.
There may not have been many listeners, but those that turned out were enthusiastic and appreciative, earning the Tonight duet from West Side Story as an encore,