Chamberfest review: Osborne and Bintner charming in duo recital

Gordon Bintner. Photo: Brent Calls

There are few things the classical music world loves more than a pair of talented, attractive young singers who are partners at home as well as on stage. Soprano Simone Osborne and bass-baritone Gordon Bintner are currently Canada’s leading operatic power couple, and they performed a joint recital of art songs for Chamberfest’s penultimate Dominion-Chalmers concert.

Osborne was enormously impressive as Marguerite in last year’s Canada 150 production of Louis Riel, singing the terrifyingly exposed Kuyas aria with hair-raising aplomb. However, in this more conventional program of music by Fauré, Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss and others, she seemed out of her element.

Everything was overwrought and overacted, as if she were standing on a set and projecting to the back of a vast hall. It’s one thing for a singer’s face to register emotion — a raised eyebrow here, a half-smile there — but Osborne punctuated even the wordless Rachmaninoff Vocalise with unnecessary hand gestures, and ended each song looking intently into the distance, mouth open in anguish or delight, lower lip trembling. It was out of place for this intimate music, especially in her set of Fauré chansons, which lost their sense of weary languour. Only in Strauss’ ecstatic, reckless Cäcilie did her mannerisms seem appropriate (although I felt her girlish, penny-bright timbre did not completely suit the opulence of this particular composition.)

Simone Osborne

More worryingly, Osborne’s forward, spinny soprano was occasionally sounding frayed and fatigued. There was a metallic edge creeping into her pretty tone, and her usually effortless, powerful top register showed signs of strain, for example in the Rachmaninoff songs. It’s a shame because there was still plenty to admire: unerring breath control and supported phrasing; delicate, even trills; perfect French diction. (The translation handouts were another story. It appears that someone in the Chamberfest office ran the texts through Google Translate unchecked, resulting in such unintentional hilarity as “we see up to the abalone”, “les amants aiment le ressort, and  “Lay moi”.)

Bintner proved to be the more consistent performer. His deep, flannel-gray bass-baritone has both mass and warmth, like sun-kissed stone. His performance of Jacques Ibert’s four evocative Chansons de Don Quichotte were the highlight of the recital. Ibert wrote the set for Chaliapin as part of the soundtrack of a 1933 film version of Don Quixote directed by Pabst. Bintner imbued the songs with nobility and a compelling sense of narrative and place, never indulging in excessive theatrics.

The singers’ partner for the evening was the eminent pianist Michael McMahon. McMahon does more than simply support the voice; he always creates a world of exquisite detail and colour that helps bring each song fully to life: sensual plucked guitar effects in Fauré’s Mandoline, for example, or heat-shimmering flamenco flourishes in Don Quichotte.

The couple also performed several duets. The repertoire for soprano and baritone is limited, and there was a sense that many of the pieces sat too high for Bintner — Saint-Saëns’ Pastorale would be better suited to a lighter, baryton martin type of voice. Still, the overall effect of these conscious musical couplings was quite sweet and charming. It’s hard to nitpick at true love.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.