The final week-end in May provided an exhilarating experience for Toronto’s Estonian community as the choir called Ööbik (Nightingale) took a significant leap into the heights of serious music. Demonstrating the choir’s resources, they did this mainly with one number – Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament from the English composer’s 17th Century chamber opera Dido and Aeneas.
The concert took place on May 29 in the “Grand Hall” of the Estonian House on Broadview, north of Danforth. The public was composed primarily of Canadian-Estonians who managed to lose their Nordic reserve following most numbers, whooping it up whenever a musical dish was flavoured to their taste.
Its forays into classical music notwithstanding, the Estonian Nightingale is better known for concerts in cabaret style – songs interspersed with clever dialogue. The choir’s popular annual fun-raising event, called Simmaree, a contraction of the words simman and kabaree (village whoop-up and cabaret) started in the elegant but somewhat restricted confines of Tartu College but, due to its popularity, has been held in the roomier Estonian House.
This year’s Simmaree, the 12th in the choir’s 15-year history, was called “Ööbik Estonias” or, to put it briefly, “Nightingale’s Visit in Spirit to the Estonia Opera House in Tallinn”. And what a spirited visit it was!
The show’s opener set a high standard with former Canadian Opera Company soloist Avo Kittask as Mr. X in Imre Kalman’s “Circus Princess”. He also acted as master of ceremonies, reading the delightfully pertinent verses of singer-poet Eerik Purje between musical numbers. Standards aside, the applause in the follow-up numbers only increased as the public developed a growing love-in with the performers.
I am still underscoring Purcell’s composition, since delivery of English baroque requires special taste and delicacy, particularly in our present age of spectacular stage musicals and operatic pyrotechnics. Under the direction of choir conductor Asta Ballstadt, the delicacy was presented on fine bone china. The choir was no doubt inspired by the soprano rendition by mezzo Rosemarie Lindau, co-conductor of the choir. Diva Lindau has the musical education and experience to carry off the role of Dido as conceived.
Estonian music was represented by composer Priit Ardna’s songs from “Kalurineiu” (Fisherman’s maiden) – a humourous choral number, a character defining solo by Elena Lepik and a duet by Tiina Coverdale and Juhan Puhm, whose pleasant tenor voice and superb diction reminded us that this was an accomplished Canadian composer and musician touching base with his heritage. Check out his Web site.
The imaginary fishing village atmosphere ushered in the recently resurrected folkdance troupe ,,Kungla”. The Estonian community is waiting for a production of their own with live music and supporting singers.
The Polovtsian Dances selection from Borodin’s Prince Igor, sung by the women, left me wistfully anticipating the men’s section in a subsequent number. Not until the finale.
Guest tenor Gwindaf Jones as Cavadarossi in Puccini’s Tosca (E lucevan le stelle) lent an opera recital air to the evening complete with the good old elbow on the grand piano. The public loved him and his top notes.
Soprano Liina Purje-Lepik was impressive in her aria from La Traviata (Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima) – in Estonian yet. Ms Lepik has a clear youthful sound (she is Elena’s mother) without the familiar heavy vibrato of many Estonian female singers.
Verdi’s Slaves Chorus from Nabucco was really a warm-up to the evening’s other highlight, an excerpt from the Grand Chorus from Aïda which, in spite of only 45 voices in the choir, was superb. I was ready to leave because my cup was full. Well done already, Ööbik!
The second half began with two children’s choral compositions by Olav Ehala. Bass Andres Raudsepp rendered a well-known sentimental piece from Carl Zeller’s “Der Vogelhändler”, an historically correct operetta from Estonia Theatre’s early repertoire. Another popular operetta, Paul Abraham’s “Victoria and her Hussar”, received double attention via two duets: Tamara Norheim-Lehela and Eerik Purje (Good Night) and Reet Lindau-Voksepp with Mati Matsoo (Yokohama Mama).
Soprano Kristina Agur, who is in Voice Performance at U of T, presented Sigmund Romberg’s ,,Lover, Come Back to Me” (The New Moon – Estonian text by Tamara Norheim-Lehela) with such beautifully even tones that it seemed she was evoking them from the future, her own.
Rosemarie Lindau’s temperamental “Habañera” from Bizet’s “Carmen”, including the “walkabout” among the tables, is always a show-stopper, leading us to the finale. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s medley from “The Phantom of the Opera” was well chosen because of the musical’s title. Powerfully sung, the rather long medley would have been more effective with a bit of editing. On the plus side, we occasionally heard repeats by the fine male section in a number of sequences.
Such an operatic evening has never been presented by a North American Estonian choir. The applause was long and enthusiastic – a tad boisterous. The simple but elegant stage design by Mall Puhm and Tiina Lipp was completed by appropriate projectuals by Tõnu Altosaar, aided by Jüri Laansoo. The Estonia 9-foot concert grand and its logo were supersuitable for the concept of the show with the noble profile of solid yet sensitive accompanist Charles Kipper an integral part of the picture. The lights, overall floral arrangement and 15 candles celebrated the choir’s anniversary.
Following this concert, we await an answer to the 15-year-old question: Quo vadis, Ööbik? What’s next on the musical plate?
Toronto Estonian Choir „Ööbik“ hits operatic highs