The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme is one of the glories of the Royal Opera House. In providing intensive coaching and the opportunity to both understudy and perform in company roles, the course offers performers at the start of their career an invaluable stepping stone to potentially greater things. And the 2007 Summer Concert was all but sold out (a cause for celebration in itself).
The Programme has already reaped its rewards. Soprano Marina Poplavskaya stepped in to cover an ailing Anna Netrebko in last month’s Don Giovanni and will sing leading roles at the Royal Opera House next season; baritone Jacques Imbrailo recently won the artist prize in the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World competition and has potential to be a world class artist; a glance through the cast list shows that each singer enjoys a busy schedule in England and abroad. This concert was our last chance to see some artists and our first chance to see others.
The material chosen was wide ranging – Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Delibes, Massenet, Mascagni, Debussy and Britten were all accounted for. The juxtapositions of work were obvious but effective, whether they were dramatic (comic, light-hearted Rossini followed by yearning, heartfelt Mozart) or musical (the stylistically contrasting love duets of Mascagni and his contemporary Debussy placed together). The concert staging was simple (deftly coloured screens above and behind the on-stage orchestra responded to the changing emotions of the music) and drama emerged from character action and reaction.
The highlight, for me, was a performance of the love duet from Debussy’s Pelleas et Mlisande from Jacques Imbrailo and Marina Poplavskaya. I was among those horrified by Stanislas Nordey’s overbearing production of the work back in May, and thankfully this concert staging drew attention back to the music, reminding just how extraordinary and complex it is. Imbrailo, even though singing from the score, communicated Pelleas’ lines with ringing clarity and immense lyricism (I found Simon Keenlyside rather gruff in Nordey’s version), while Poplavskaya conveyed much through her wandering eyes and expressive delivery. Though the two stood apart, their dialogue seemed both intimate and profoundly elusive, just like the opera itself.
There was so much else to enjoy. Mascagni’s duet from L’amico Fritz is a more obviously tuneful affair, and the clean-cut tenor of Nikola Matisic melded exquisitely with soprano Kishani Jayasinghe‘s more penetrating tone. The two had previously impressed – Jayasinghe’s strident, seductive Fiorilla (in Rossini’s Il turco in Italia) could have eaten alive all of her three male companions, while Matisic sang with soaring passion in the duet from Mozart’s Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail. The latter performance also introduced the extraordinary soprano Ana James, whose beautiful timbre, confident attack of notes and super-smooth delivery were something to behold. She returned to end the concert as Lakm, lingering on those piano top notes like a true diva. Rene Fleming sprang to mind.
The least successful item, for me, was the excerpt from Billy Budd. A surprise, perhaps, for Britten’s clear-cut character definition is a gift to this sort of event. There was no problem with Jacques Imbrailo’s Billy – he stammered as convincingly as anyone – but I found Robert Gleadow too smarmy for the sadistic Claggart and Andrew Sritheran vocally tight as Captain Vere. But perhaps Gleadow was tired of being the bad guy, having played a Don Giovanni-like Selim (Il turco) and a superbly menacing Loredano (Verdi’s I due Foscari) in the first half (wasn’t he Gounod’s Méphistophélès last year too?). Sritheran was also more convincing in the Verdi piece – his dramatic tenor felt more suited to Verdi’s arching lines than to Britten’s speech-like declamations.
What else? Ex-Young Artist Liora Grodnikaite, though a tad underpowered, nailed the mezzo aria from Massenet’s Werther with her shattering upper register and highly involving stage presence. Another ‘ex’, bass Darren Jeffery performed admirably. I found him stolid in the Barbican’s recent Benvenuto Cellini, but as the Doge (I due Foscari) he seemed liberated, both vocally and dramatically. And bass-baritone Krzysztof Szumanski and tenor Haoyin Xue displayed commendably secure and beautiful voices in the Rossini quartet.
The evening was underpinned by the superlative playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who moved between styles (and conductors – the promising Young Artist Andrew Griffiths shared the honours with Stephen Barlow) with great facility and commitment. A performance of Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture kicked the evening off – a performance underwhelming in the stormy brass climaxes but especially humorous in the nimble, conversational dialogue between woodwind and strings, between legato and pizzicato. If the whole wasn’t completely perfect, it provided an admirable evening’s entertainment and an irreplaceable opportunity to hear these fine artists in one concert.