The programme itself started brilliantly with a stunning collection of ensemble gems by Richard Strauss. The Young Artists performed exceedingly well, rising to Strauss’ glorious music time after time, but the second half was extremely disappointing, not because of the performances, but because of the repertoire selection. Comprised of operetta extracts by Offenbach, Johann Strauss II, Lehár and Herbert, much of it was absurdly unfunny and musically impoverished. The students clearly tried their best, but there was no disguising the waning in audience appreciation (save for a few titters here and there) and in the performances. The fault for this lies clearly with the decision to juxtapose the brilliance of Richard Strauss with the irreverent dirge of mere tunesmiths. Would it not have been better to showcase the potential of the Young Artists by having them perform some of the roles which they have recently covered, either independently or in ensemble? Instead they were asked to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and on this occasion they largely, and understandably, failed to manage this.
The first half of the concert kicked off with a beautiful performance of the “Presentation of the Rose” scene from Act II of Der Rosenkavalier. Simona Mihai, who has significantly grown in confidence and in ability since I first heard her, was a pleasing and believable Sophie. The voice may not have enough youthful silvery shimmer for this particular role, but it was nonetheless a convincing performance. The Octavian of the statuesque Kai Rüütel showed promise of a very fruity and luscious mezzo, but her diction was a tad indistinct. Elisabeth Meister somewhat stole the scene with a riotously mad Marianne, but it was an unusual choice of casting. As a dramatic soprano it begged the question, why cast a Rolls Royce voice in a Mini Cooper role?
Next came one of the highlights of the entire concert, the trio “Des Dichters Worte” from Capriccio. Having recently seen this work in a magnificent performance at Grange Park opera my expectations were suitably high, and the Young Artists did not (on the whole) disappoint. Elisabeth Meister was stunning as the Countess – sovereign of voice and very moving. One hopes she adds this role to her repertoire. Dawid Kimberg’s Olivier lacked any real passion, but the voice is an intrinsically good one. Steven Ebel’s contribution was somewhat less successful. He was clearly more at ease on stage that I have yet seen him, but the voice suffers from certain technical deficiencies, which have been present since he joined the programme. Aside from a slightly nasal and covered sound, his movement between notes can be decidedly jerky, leading to some very squally sounds. The Programme needs to provide him with greater help in facilitating his vocal development – otherwise any promise which he has, will remain unfulfilled.
The final duet from Act II of Intermezzo was a perfect showcase for the soaring soprano of Eri Nakamura and the rich baritone of Changhan Lim. On this showing it is clear why Nakamura has been snapped up by the Bavarian State Opera, as her voice has matured, expanded even and yet kept that radiant top. Lim was also at his very best in this stunning duet, blending beautifully with Nakamura’s silvery soprano. What they both lack however, is stage presence. They both seem a little static and rather arch in their performances, but vocally they are wonderfully expressive.
The first half of the concert concluded with a delightful performance of the finale from Act II of Strauss’ rarely performed Die schweigsame Frau. Lukas Jakobski showed real star potential with his towering presence and granite-like bass. Rumbling away off stage in a key so low, you were left in stitches at how well the comedy of this scene had been handled. Simona Mihai and Robert Anthony Gardiner’s love scene was compelling and very believable, although Gardiner’s slight and rather English tenor, speaks more of elegance than of passion. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful end to a highly accomplished first half. How I wish it could have been left there.
The second half began with the “Trio patriotique” from Act III of Offenbach’s La belle Helene, complete with what looked like a variation on “I’m a little teapot” movements by Ebel, Lim and Jakobski. All three young artists tried their best to bring this absurd piece to life, but I for one felt acutely embarrassed for them as they pranced around in an extremely self-conscious fashion. The school yard hand clapping of Nakamura and Rüütel in the trio from Act III of Der Zigeunerbaron was clumsy and pointless, but then again so was the music. It was by far and away the most tiresome extract of the entire evening, with both sopranos even managing to be a little out of sync by the end. Luckily things improved afterwards, with ex Jette Parker Young Artists, Ji-Min Park coming on to give a star turn with “Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert” from Lehár’s Giuditta. It was short and rollicking and produced the desired effect from the audience. It was then followed by a huge chunk of Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. To say this went on and on was an understatement. Top marks for comedy and stunning vocals for Elisabeth Meister in her rendition of the title song, especially when she opened up a little and gave us a hint of that thrilling voice which she possesses, but the work itself is irredeemable tripe. Robert Anthony Gardiner also put in a rather stylish performance, as did Kai Rüütel and Kimberg. The concert ended with a spectacularly flat and self-conscious performance of the Act II finale of Die Fledermaus.
The staging for the concert was taken from the gambling scene of La traviata, with costumes designed by the director José Dario Innella. A few chairs here and there and some dresses with jeans underneath them, hardly comprised of a well thought out concept, but it functionally served its purpose. One cannot really judge Innella’s promise on the basis of this alone, better to cast one’s mind back to his fantastic Truth about love production in 2009. The orchestra responded well to the baton’s of Dominic Grier and Steven Moore, but the lack of passion and fizz in the second half seemed endemic of a general malaise. They were perhaps at their best in the “Presentation of the Rose” from Der Rosenkavalier and at their worst in the trio from Der Zigeunerbaron, where a couple of mishaps were clearly evident.
All in all, it was a very mixed afternoon at The Royal Opera. On the plus side, the Young Artists are repaying the investment in time and money which The Royal Opera has put into them. Clearly David Gowland and his team can spot promising talent a mile off, and one can see in nearly all of them the huge strides being taken in their development as artists. On the basis of this showing I would say that Nakamura has graduated top of her class with an impressive future no doubt already secured, whilst Meister heads the first year with the sort of voice and confidence on stage that marks her out as a leading dramatic soprano of the future. It was also very pleasing to see just how far Simona Mihai had developed, plus the great talent of the Polish bass Lukas Jakobski. If the repertoire selection next year can be better suited to the talent on offer, then it ought to be a must-attend date in every opera goer’s diary. One hopes that next year the organisers of the BBC Proms will not schedule a major operatic event on the same day as the Young Artists concert. The empty seats were testimony to the amount of people who chose instead to attend the WNO performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg with Bryn Terfel. On the basis of the repertoire selection of the second half of this concert, then I would say it was a wise decision to see Terfel’s Hans Sachs instead.
Coming soon the Young Artists will be performing Haydn’s L’isola disabitata on the 26th, 28th and 29th of October. Click here for further information.
Photographs: (1) Nakamura; (2) Mihai; (3) Jakobski; (4) Meister; (5) Group; (6) Gardiner