A game of two halves indeed, this year’s Summer Concert from the Jette Parker Young Artists at The Royal Opera, offered us a stultifyingly dreary trio of Rossini operas in the first part of the performance, enlivened and impressively bettered by scenes from Lucrezia Borgia, Death in Venice and The Tales of Hoffman in the second part. Venice was the raison d'être for the selection, but surely they could have dropped one of the Rossini operas and replaced it was something infinitely more impressive, how about Verdi’s I Due Foscari for starters? Despite reservations about the choice of some of the works, no such reservations can be offered about the quality of most of the singing, which was of a very high standard throughout. I just wish that those in charge of this exceptionally fine programme would jettison their absurd notions about how to showcase their young artists. Year after year we sit through Summer Concerts and we rarely hear them sing an aria. Is the intention to prepare these fine young singers for a career in the chorus only? If not, then there is no excuse for not having them perform an aria alongside the ensemble selections. They are, unless I’m going absolutely potty here, being groomed as opera stars of the future, in which case, let the audience hear them showcase their voices properly, perhaps with a selection from an opera in which they have been covering another singer. This ensemble-led showcase approach is getting a little tired now.
Before turning to the highlights of the afternoon’s performance, I must turn my attention to the trio of dreaded Rossini operas which formed the first half of the concert. Il signor Bruschino was just one long, tedious fart joke. The director Rodula Gaitanou, decided that ZhengZhong Zhou should spend the entire performance punctuating the comedy with enough flatulence to floor a donkey. Sadly after 30 seconds of this twaddle, it became chronically unfunny. Musically things were redeemed by a fabulous performance from Dawid Kimberg. His coloratura was rhythmically precise, elegant and dispatched without trepidation. Combine this with an attractive tone, good volume and strong stage presence, and I can’t help but think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in years to come. Zhou was adequate, but his baritone was upstaged by Kimberg’s more complete technique. As for Ji Hyun Kim, the programme’s very own tenorino, I very much doubt if Covent Garden has ever fielded a singer with quite so little voice. It reminded me of an annoying mosquito buzzing around to little effect and even less purpose. The high tenor category is very ably represented by Florez, Brownlee, Banks and Lee, and if Kim has delusions of ever entering their select company, he needs to find another gear and sharpish.
The Rossini patter and comedic antics of Il signor Bruschino were replaced by the sedate offerings of Bianca e Falliero, another opera rarely performed and with good reason. The standard of singing however, was pretty good, with Anna Devin demonstrating a high, clear soprano, that reminded me both of Luciana Serra, whose glassy, but unerringly pitch-perfect tones were not dissimilar to Devin’s and the pingingly perfect Mady Mesple, whose fast vibrato and altitudinous excursions seemingly inspired a love or hate relationship with her audience. Both of these ladies are famous coloratura sopranos, and I would not be surprised if Devin has the makings of a good one as well, as she executed her runs with precision, and popped out many a high note without audible difficulty. It is not a tone I personally enjoy, finding it a touch shallow for my liking, but she is certainly a very fine singer and a touching actress.
Her beau, or lady in drag as it were, was the mezzo soprano Kai Ruutel, looking disturbingly like Vasselina Kasarova from where I was sitting. Thankfully that is where the similarity ended. Although she took a little while to warm into the scene, she was soon delivering her vocal rockets with great confidence. The tone was warm and rich and the range very malleable. The top however, sounded entirely disconnected to the rest of the voice, with a pinched quality to it. There is some power there, but it was not a pleasure to hear. Still, I’ve watched her develop into quite a lovely artist and suspect that her glamorous stage presence and good voice will ensure a successful career.
The first half of the show was completed with the Otello – sadly not Verdi’s, but Rossini’s insipid, undramatic account. Kim and Ruutel were back, joined by Madeleine Pierard, Steven Ebel and Daniel Grice. Pierard’s Desdemona certainly looked the part, but the voice was not very steady (perhaps suffering a bit from nerves?) and the top was a little strident. Steven Ebel sadly disappointed (he made up for it later) in this selection, re-affirming what I had hitherto always suspected, namely that his voice is too small for this house and that his demeanour is one of a gigantic school boy, lumbering around on stage looking gawky and self-conscious. Daniel Grice however, was excellent as Elmiro, providing edge to a drama which was sadly missing elsewhere.
With the first half done, I was enormously grateful that the second half looked so much more appealing, and thankfully, it did not disappoint at all. It opened with Act I, Scene II of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, “Tutto eseguisti?” A sharply dramatic piece, it relies on enormous tension being built up between Alfonso, Duca di Ferrara and his wife, Lucrezia Borgia. The recitative slowly develops into a fraught situation as Lucrezia tries to dissuade her husband from executing her son Gennaro. Neither her husband nor her son is aware of her true relationship to Gennaro, leading Lucrezia to blend desperation with hostility as she tries to convince of his innocence. The piece was last seen at Covent Garden in 1980 in a series of legendary performances with Dame Joan Sutherland, so it was good to hear another soprano who could on the basis of what has been heard, take on the role with aplomb. Elisabeth Meister is a worthy successor to sing the Borgia, as her blistering soprano easily scaled the heights of the role, throwing off fiendishly difficult and stentorianly powerful top Cs with nonchalant ease. Her cabaletta “Oh! a te bada, a te stresso pon mente” was a vicious flurry of coloratura, which quite stole the show and took my breath away (I won’t repeat what one of the patrons of Covent Garden said sat behind me, but judging by her audible excitement I took it to mean she was similar impressed). Having heard practically every young artist Covent Garden has produced on both the Jette Parker and Albert Villar programmes, I can sincerely say that I have yet to hear a singer quite so impressive. She is also an adept actress, who inhabits her roles totally, rather than merely applying a veneer of artistic credibility to the surface. This Lucrezia was a dangerous vamp who offered a masterclass in bel canto singing – oh to have heard her sing the “Era desso”. No wonder the Chicago Lyric Opera have snapped her up.
La Meister’s was joined by the charismatic Polish bass Lukas Jakobski, whose towering physique gives him immediate stage presence. He is not remotely ungainly, unlike Ebel, but instead inhabited his character totally, giving the Duke a real air of malevolence. Despite Lucrezia’s powerful family name, there was no question of him being subservient to the Borgia. His partnership with Meister was very intense, providing the only genuine electrifying moment of the concert. His voice also appears to be more powerful and resonant than it once was, and it should, with careful development, see him attain roles at all the leading opera houses. The top is a little short at present and the tone a bit monochrome, but I can hear how far he has come in such a short space of time. His is another career to watch with interest as In 10 years time I suspect he will be the Verdi bass of choice.
After the vocal pyrotechnics of Lucrezia Borgia we were transported to Britten’s Death in Venice, with a superb performance from all concerned. Steven Ebel finally (and we’re talking absolutely last minute here) demonstrated why he had a place on the Young Artists Programme to begin with. Beautiful clear diction and an ease of legato, allowed him to communicate much of von Aschenbach’s tortured sense of right and wrong, duty and lust/love for Tadzio, in amongst a claustrophobic Venice beset with cholera. He was elegant and beautifully moving. Britten is clearly his niche and he needs to be guided in this direction – it is amenable for his voice and plays towards his acting strengths. It was a genuine pleasure to hear him perform so well. Daniel Grice similarly excelled as the Hotel Barber and the Leader of the Players. If only they found a Tadzio who wasn’t twice the age he should have been!
Which brings us on to the conclusion, a musically tepid performance of the sextet from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman. Madeleine Pierard was again unsteady, but good support was provided by all around her. What was more interesting was the endless shenanigans going on between the Young Artists as they inhabited all the sins of a Venetian brothel with gusto. Clearly enjoying their final moments, some lusty singing propelled the closing scene to its climax, although sadly no one saw fit to throw in a high E Flat, which the closing bars appear to be screaming out for – either that or I need to stop listening to the Sutherland/Domingo recording on Decca!
The set was Act I of Tosca (no doubt primed for use that evening in the starry performance with Gheorghiu, Kaufmann and Terfel), which served well as an all-purpose backdrop for the concert. The conducting was on the whole more than acceptable. Paul Wynne Griffiths had the measure of Rossini in Bianca e Falliero and Otello, and he upped the ante nicely in Lucrezia Borgia. Volker Krafft managed the intricate patter of Il signor Bruschino with reasonable flair, but it was Geoffrey Paterson’s handling of Britten’s score which pointed towards an accomplished conductor in the making.
It was, like last year, a mixed bag, but what is certain despite my reservations regarding the choice of repertoire and how they present their young artists, Covent Garden is hugely adept at discovering new talent. This year sees a number of talented artists leaving the programme, many of whom will no doubt be back to perform as principals in their own right within the next couple of years. I hope the intake of 2011 will be as distinguished as that of 2009. It may be greedy to want more artists on the programme who are of the calibre of Meister, Kimberg and Jakobski, but as they’ve raised the benchmark so high, anything less will be conspicuously felt.