This matinee performance came the day after the Royal Opera’s end-of-season farewell, which comprised a Rosina in a wheelchair with Almaviva miming on stage to another tenor singing in the wings, and neither the originally announced Tosca nor Cavaradossi appearing at all. It must therefore have come as something of a relief that at least this subsequent showcase for the young professionals on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme went entirely without a hitch, as advertised, and with all ten vocal participants present, correct and ambulatory, together with the services of three conductors and a stage director, in front of a large and enthusiastic – albeit understandably partisan – audience.
Given that these kinds of showcase function less as an opportunity for rigorous critical examination than simply to provide a platform for gratifying end-of-term exposure, I suppose it would be kindest to draw discreet veils over the rather worrying amount of stentorian forcing that afflicted so many of the performances, as if singing to floor a bull at fifty paces somehow constituted proof-positive of either vocal skill or dramatic commitment. This approach almost did for the Massenet half of the programme, with an ear-piercing, disagreeably forced Charlotte from Monika-Evelin Liiv in Act III of Werther, and a hopelessly hang-dog protagonist (Changhan Lim) in what I imagine must have been the Covent Garden premiere of the dismal 1902 recasting of the opera for Mattia Battistini (an utterly pointless and thoroughly lazy, minimal-effort adaptation by Massenet himself that even Thomas Hampson couldn’t make work or sound worthwhile in Paris a few years ago). Only Simona Mihai, an evident stage natural, made a good impression as Charlotte’s (much) younger sister Sophie, though the orchestra of Welsh National Opera certainly gave the score its Wagnerian head, and Daniele Rustioni conducted with flair and gusto.
To my surprise – considering the excellent work she has done in the house since her debut only last November – I felt that Eri Nakamura’s Manon was both overstretched and oddly undercharacterised, though still in a different realm of achievement to her Des Grieux, Ji-Min Park, whose “Ah, fuyez, douce image!” – interestingly sung as a continuous crescendo from the quietest of crooned openings to the most skull-splitting of climaxes – frequently veered sharp and never really suggested full technical command of the matter at hand. Ironically, this scene – Manon’s Act III, scene I – had much the most effective staging on offer all afternoon, all gloom and incense, from Thomas Guthrie (any relation to Tyrone, I wonder?) who was otherwise responsible for the flatly ineffectual Werther extract, and the feeble presentation of Don Giovanni Act I (only as far as “Fin ch’an dal vino”) that constituted the programme’s first half.
This provided the principal opportunity for the majority of the singers on the Young Artists programme to strut their stuff, though the bare-stage, black-and-white modern dress scarcely facilitated strutting, and certain directorial decisions – dressing Vuyani Mlinde’s richly-sung, sharply delineated Leporello as Mr. Bojangles; leaving Giovanni undisguised and perfectly identifiable throughout the opening contretemps with Donna Anna (who still proceeds to spend the next forty minutes not knowing who her father’s killer was) – rendered the entire proceedings fairly pointless to watch, as did the “staged” overture, which consisted of the whole cast walking the width of the large, empty space, huddled under umbrellas, over and over (and over) until the six minutes were up. (Peter Hall’s old Glyndebourne production played this trick some thirty-odd years ago, to better and more selective effect.) In the absence of a chorus, the eruption of peasantry that sweeps Zerlina and Masetto on was omitted, leading to a very awkward join in the framing continuo passages, and an even more awkward one in the stage action: but at least we got a Commendatore, in the shape of Jeremy White, who this time got to die in a white suit to match his recent run of dying in a black one as Dr. Goll in Lulu.
In the light of numerous recent appearances in comprimario roles taken with distinction, I was expecting great things from Kostas Smoriginas – he provided much the best singing in this year’s grisly Turandot, for example – and indeed the voice is in excellent shape, firmly-drawn, evenly-knit, and with a quite lovely, almost silvery light lyric quality to the sound. But Giovanni really requires more heft than is his to offer – at least for now – and I was slightly surprised that he didn’t impress more in the brooding sexpot stakes in which Erwin Schrott has latterly cornered the market, and which Smoriginas, it seems to me, has it in him to manifest comparably. Of course, charisma cannot be learned, nor acted: you’ve either got it, or you haven’t. It’s just that I expected to see more of it than was evident here.
I personally didn’t find Anita Watson’s Donna Anna persuasive, either vocally or dramatically, where she struck me as big and clumsy on both fronts: but I was much taken with Pumeza Matshikiza’s Donna Elvira – uncannily resembling Condoleezza Rice in her immaculate white twin-set and pearls, I thought – whose previous performances in the house have not overly impressed me, but who here nailed both the character, and the extremely demanding music, pretty much flat (though she once or twice all but ran herself out of breath in the process). The voice is unusual, rich, dark, but with a glinting top and a fine middle with “blade”. Coupled with what seems to be temperament to spare, on this showing I would predict a handsome career ahead of her.
Something similar I suspect awaits Robert Anthony Gardiner, whose “Dalla sua pace” was most gracefully and evenly-sung, with a very English voice reminding me a little of Rolfe-Johnson in his prime, though he no more managed to establish Ottavio’s character, such as it is, than anyone else recently. (Zambello’s current staging for the Royal Opera is equally null on this point, as so much else…) Simona Mihai’s Zerlina was fine, though I thought she found more character, vocally and dramatically, in the relatively pallid Sophie in the second half than she did in the altogether more flesh-and-blood Zerlina in the first. Perhaps she’s a Massenet natural (they do exist, occasionally: think of Sybil Sanderson; or in our own time, Renée Fleming). We shall see. The Masetto, Changhan Lim, made a better showing here than he did as Werther, though the restless physicality imposed on him by the staging rather got in the way of a smooth line in “Ho capito!”
Fine, big-boned but pacey conducting from Rory Macdonald, pretty much School-of-Mackerras – which is just fine by me – and some purposeful playing from the band, though their best efforts could not redeem the leaden Phèdre overture which launched the second half in interminable tedium, Massenet paid by the bar, and such a woeful piece that it scarcely allowed for any kind of assessment of Dominic Grier’s conducting skills in his sole contribution. If the programme really needed another twelve minutes of Massenet orchestral filler to justify the show’s somewhat spurious title (the only thing that occurred in the ostensible transition From Mozart to Massenet was the interval) couldn’t we at least have had the riotous ballet music from Le Cid instead ?