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Jette Parker Young Artists Programme Summer Performance: From Mozart to Massenet:
various artists, The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera; Rory Macdonald, Dominic Grier and Daniele Rustioni (conductors). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 19.7.2009 (JPr)

School’s out for summer and it is the end of the season at Covent Garden too, so it is graduation time for some of the Jette Parker Young Artists class of 2008/9.

As I reported last year Jette and Alan Parker founded the Oak Foundation and for the last decade or so it has supported non-profit organizations throughout the world. The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme was set up in 2001 to support the artistic development of professional singers, conductors, directors and répétiteurs at the start of their careers. The Young Artists spend two years at the Royal Opera House as full-time salaried company members; amongst other opportunities they can sing small roles and cover larger roles in Royal Opera productions – this year most notably Eri Nakamura, a finalist in the 2009 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, replaced Anna Netrebko as Giuletta in I Capuleti e I Montecchi, for one performance earlier this year. Répétiteurs and conductors join the music staff of The Royal Opera for rehearsals and stage duties as well as coaching the Young Artists. At the end of season they all come together to perform in or devise the main annual stage concert.

If you examine the roster of all the Young Artists involved in this performance sadly only five are British and I really do wonder where Brits can go to get their opera experience in an international house if there are not the opportunities for them at Covent Garden. This is another debate entirely and must not detract from a review of the current group of Jette Parker Young Artists. The scenes presented seemed carefully chosen to present the singers in the best possible light (Mozart’s Don Giovanni Act I [scenes 1-15], an excerpt from Massenet’s Werther Act III and an excerpt from Act III of his Manon) yet in performance it all proved a rather hit-or-miss affair with a few of the singers ‘graduating’ this year failing to make as good impression as they did in last year’s concert.

In 2008 the Young Artists were able to perform on a ‘real’ set and extracts from Figaro and Capriccio were presented in the same basic Act IV set by Tanya McCallin for Royal Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro being performed at that time. Sadly there was nothing like that for the Mozart or Massenet this year and the director, Thomas Guthrie, had little more to work with than the wide expanse of the Royal Opera House stage with some scenery flats to constrict or open up a space, as appropriate.

Mr Guthrie was allowed a ‘Director’s Note’ for his staging of Don Giovanni that began ‘It is not the director’s job to make a moral judgement on any of the characters, merely to show in as clear a way as possible – and as faithfully to the spirit of the work as he is able – the words and the music set before him.’ I wondered whether he was being deliberately ironic or if this was simply a naïve statement that in future years he will come to regret. Sadly the Royal Opera House appears not to have paid its electricity bill because showing clearly was the last thing that was possible in much of the murkiness for his opening scenes from Don Giovanni in Nick Ware’s lighting design.

In his ‘Note’ Guthrie goes on to posit ‘What are the consequences of the behaviour we have witnessed?’ Here I believe his idea was to have Don Giovanni reminiscing about his past life looking back at these moments from, perhaps, the ‘great beyond’. The stage was essentially a black box with only occasionally a ‘horizon’ of light at the back, the ‘leitmotive’ of figures holding umbrellas and Illaria Martello’s black costumes (for Don Giovanni and the top-hatted Leporello) and white/cream ones - for most of the other characters - seemed inspired by Jack Vettriano. However it was all too obscure for my liking with characters moving in and out of the shadows and often difficult to see clearly. At one point in the scene between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni appears to be present in the background but this could have been my eyes playing tricks on me in all the gloom.

Unfortunately Anita Watson was too strident as Donna Anna and sounded like a Valkyrie. Changhan Lim was a one-dimensional and unexpressive Masetto. Neither Vuyani Mlinde’s Leporello or Pumeza Matshikiza’s Donna Elvira were as good as some of their previous performances at the Royal Opera House, their acting seemed to be taking precedence over the vocal characterisation of their roles; he seeming to strive for comic effect and she trying too hard to appear neurotic both with unvarying vocal tone. On the plus side Robert Anthony Gardiner sang his aria Dalla sua pace with real Mozartian elegance and is a singer to watch out for. Best all-round performances and singing came from Kostas Smoriginas’s Don Giovanni and Simona Mihai’s Zerlina and their duet Là ci darem la mano was the highlight of an over-long Mozart ‘bleeding chunk’. Former Young Artist Rory Macdonald’s tempi at times seemed to challenge his young singers but he led the exemplary Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera through some polished and reverential Mozart.

The second half of this matinee performance began with Massenet’s Overture for Racine’s Phèdre performed with the curtains closed and conducted with suitable dramatic fervour by Dominic Grier. This was followed by two short extracts from two Massenet operas Werther and Manon. Werther was performed in the 1902 version where the young poet is sung by a baritone and not a tenor. Thomas Guthrie now reduced the stage area to focus our attention on a more traditional setting with only a harpsichord, table and some sort of gift basket present. Monika-Evelin Liiv was alternately a fragile voiced or shouty Charlotte and Changhan Lim sang Werther reasonably well but failed again to fully inhabit his role and with the baritone transposition the climaxes to his famous aria Pourquoi me réveiller? got lost in when swelling orchestral sound. When Charlotte and Werther embrace she was pulling away not as if she was thinking about her husband, Albert, but more as if he had been eating garlic. Simona Mihai followed her pert Zerlina with a brief but impressive portrayal of Charlotte’s sweetly charming younger sister and confidant, Sophie. Daniele Rustioni’s conducting was suitably lyrical and impassioned.

As is often the case, the best came last and Manon brought together all the ten Young Artists singing plus guest artist, Jeremy White, who had earlier been a stern and stentorian Commendatore. The staging was almost traditional with a hint of cloisters and incense and clerical garb, Victorian dresses and regimental uniforms. The duet between Manon, Eri Nakamura, and Des Grieux, Ji-Min Park, Ah! Viens, Manon, je t’aime! was – at long last – international class opera singing - should there be such a thing - and these two singers probably have the best chance of establishing for themselves a meaningful career in coming years. Neither is charismatic enough to sell tickets in their own right however they will rarely disappoint an audience. Rory Macdonald had the baton once again and conducted with all the passion and romantic sweep the music demanded.

Once again it had been good showcase for the Young Artists and everyone had tried hard to impress the atypical Covent Garden audience full of their family and friends as well as many Covent Garden regulars now able to populate the stalls due to reasonable ticket prices for a Sunday afternoon show. Good luck to all the Young Artists now leaving the programme and I am sure because there was so much talent on display we will hear most of them again in roles or venues big or small in the future. I noted in the programme credits ‘special thanks’ to Yvonne Kenny, Sondra Radvanovsky, Thomas Allen and Jeremy White for working with the young artists on their roles and I continue to wonder whether too much attention is given to stagecraft and drama coaching and not enough to vocal training.

© Jim Pritchard

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