I always enjoy attending the Jette Parker Young Artists summer showcase at the Royal Opera House. The audience comprises friends and family, many really keen opera buffs who are clearly thrilled at hearing the latest crop of stars “before they were famous,” as well as casting directors and programmers. It is also so nice not to have to pile into the-pit-which-is-ROH2 in this weather. The Royal Opera House clearly has no problem in attracting a substantial audience for these occasions and this year particularly I felt there was a wonderful atmosphere and a really appreciative audience, many of whom were willing to talk to me about each singer. I must make special mention of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, who I thought played superbly throughout. (Presumably they are in town to rehearse for Schönberg’s Moses und Aron which premieres this Friday.)
Not only is the Royal Opera House’s training programme one of the more visible of the European schemes, it is unusual because the annual showcase gives the young singers the chance to perform on the main stage with the support of a fully professional orchestra. During their salaried apprenticeship to the Company, those chosen receive guidance in musical styles and interpretation, languages, movement, acting and stage technique. In 2006 the position of Jette Parker Principal was added which enables one singer to stay on a further year with access to the professional coaching whilst undertaking roles on the main stage.
This year Jihoon Kim is that Principal. It is so nice to hear a true bass with consistent, velvety tone throughout the range. It is good to see from his recent biography that he is starting to work with various Italian houses and orchestras. He had the rather thankless role of Balthazar in the first act of La favorite, an opera written rather hastily by Donizetti when he was the man of the moment in Paris. It is more familiar in its later Italian version, although you can hear it again in French at this year’s Salzburg Festival – in concert. Under the banner “Opening Acts” we heard only scenes 1 and 2 from Act One when the best music (paradoxically since Donizetti scribbled it down in a few hours) belongs to Act Three. This was presumably programmed as a “filler” once the decision had been made to make Act I of Così the afternoon’s centrepiece. In its defence, it did offer a welcome chance to hear these young artists sing in French and, perhaps most importantly, gave the JPYAP star tenor a chance to show his skills.
Luis Gomes is Portugese tenor of great promise. As Fernand in this excerpt he has I think one top C# and one top C. The first was perfectly negotiated, the second sounded just a tad strained, but sung with such commitment you could see he was pushing himself to the limit in order to develop further. For me what was special about his singing was the range of timbres and colours this tenor has added to his vocal palette over the last twelve months. The basic sound of his voice at the end of a phrase when he is not thinking about it has a rather fierce vibrato; but he rarely went back to that default position during this performance, giving us much a more mellow and sweet tone, some superb sotto voce and nuancing phrases by singing some notes without vibrato. Comparisons are nearly always odious, but the rather edgy default sound reminded me a little of José Cura whilst the variety and artistry of the rest of his singing is probably nearer to Joseph Calleja. This is an Italianate, lyric tenor of some stature for the future.
Talking of stature, he is slightly vertically challenged (as are many true tenors), so full marks to the JPYAP stage director, Greg Eldridge for ensuring Mr Gomes was able to emote convincingly without being towered over by the other protagonists. The first of these was Anush Hovhannisyan, cast as Leonora’s maid, Inès. She was the most active of the principals in the Donizetti excerpt from a directorial perspective, dancing and playing with the other servants who were members of the Thurrock Community Chorus. She invested so much but sadly missed the top note of her aria by a country mile.
The other female protagonist was the Russian mezzo, Nadezhda Karyazina who didn’t have enough of interest to sing to really engage me, although I hear good things about her singing elsewhere and really liked the quality of her lower register. Hopefully she will feature more prominently in next year’s showcase.
After the interval we were treated to a box of delights. Using the La bohème set for the last time, Mr Eldridge had created a lively café scene for the duration of the overture, during which he made it clear that, in the battle between the sexes, women hold the power. Having used stage machinery and clever lighting to portray Fernand’s desire to leave the constraints of a monastery, but otherwise allowing his singers the chance to stand and deliver difficult technical arias, this time we were drawn into the world of two young couples, cruelly manipulated by Don Alfonso and Despina.
This half of the programme was so good, I would have been happy to pay top prices to see and hear this ensemble cast in this production. It all worked – the humour, the characterisations, the elements of farce and the stage business. Rachel Kelly as Dorabella was initially a little underpowered and subdued, but came into her own in “Smanie implacabili.” Michel de Souza whose Papageno last year was superb, had fun with the role of Guglielmo but lacked a little resonance and projection. (Perhaps he was a little under the weather.) David Butt Philip is more than the average “English tenor” and delivered a poised and musical “Un aura amorosa.” He doesn’t yet have a huge voice, but I like the slightly darker colour he can offer (having initially trained as a baritone) and he proved he is an uninhibited comedian on stage, which I imagine will stand him in good stead.
The outstanding all-round male performance of the afternoon came from Ashley Riches as Don Alfonso . This young man is the perfect stage animal, confident without being overbearing, camp when appropriate, darkly sinister if need be. He looked as if he had been singing the role of Don Alfonso for the last twenty years in major houses. His use of Italian, particularly in the recitative, was exceptional and he has a lovely dark baritone, making him ideal to play sinister villains in future.
Dusica Bijelic as Despina probably worked the hardest in this production, managing to be coquettish and manipulative by turns. Sadly she didn’t have sufficient vocal projection to match her sterling characterisation and the voice is a little one-dimensional. It must be difficult when you are performing alongside an exceptional young soprano such as Kiandra Howarth, who undertook the role of Fiordiligi. This is a very special and very beautiful voice, most notably in “Come scoglio.” She needs to develop her chest voice at the bottom end of her range a little more, but she otherwise has a wonderfully consistent sound throughout the range and flawless top notes. She was the one singer of the afternoon whose singing made my spine tingle. Her characterisation too was utterly convincing, rather like a feisty Jane Austen character and she has a compelling stage presence.
A final word for the two young conductors who elicited total commitment from the WNO Orchestra and a necessary Italianate flair to both excerpts. Paul Wingfield gave us a suitably atmospheric La Favorite and Michele Gamba a joyous rendition of Così.
Photos: Clive Barda (Kim, Gomes, Bijelic and the Thurrock Community Chorus, Butt Philip, Riches, Howarth)