Veneziana , Jette Parker Young Artists Programme Summer Performance: Rodula Gaitanou (director), Simon Bennison (lighting design), Mandy Demetriou (choreographer), Soloists, Orchestra of Royal Opera House; Paul Wynne Griffiths, Volker Krafft and Geoffrey Paterson (conductors). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 17.7.2011 (JPr)
The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme is sponsored by Oak Foundation, an international organisation founded by Jette and Alan Parker in Switzerland in 1998 to promote all manner of non-profit-making good causes including the environment, human rights and social integration. The Royal Opera’s Young Artists Programme was instigated in 2001 and over the last decade has furthered the musical development of professional singers, conductors, directors and répétiteurs. They spend two years at the Royal Opera House as full-salaried members of the company, receive coaching in all aspects of opera production, are cast in small roles and cover larger roles in the Royal Opera repertoire.
Before ‘School’s out for summer’ and some of the Young Artists ‘graduate’ there is an end-of-season showcase of their work. This year’s matinee concert was given the title Veneziana. In the first half there were several scenes from three rarely-performed Venetian operas by Rossini. The second half was described as The Spirit of Venice and there were similar short ‘chunks’ from operas by Donizetti, Britten and Offenbach. Providing the backdrop to all of this was Paul Brown’s Act I stage set from Tosca representing the interior of the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome. This has a prominent divided set of steps up to a higher level that was used fairly imaginatively by Rodula Gaitanou’s direction throughout the various operatic experts, but was at its best representing a canal bridge for Britten’s Death in Venice.
I have never seen Rossini’s one act farce, Il signor Bruschino, in its entirety – and doubt I ever will – so I do not know how genuinely ‘flatulent’ the actual libretto is but I doubt whether the over-use of a ‘breaking wind’ sight gag employed here came from the composer. It has the typical farce elements of a rich relative, young lovers and mistaken identity. This was a complete dud and got the afternoon off to a poor start. Dawid Kimberg, Ji Hyun Kim, and Zheng Zhong Zhou sang reasonably well but here comic talent was more necessary than singing ability and laughs were in short supply. This was followed by Bianca e Falliero that is performed even less often and may never, I understand, have been put on by a professional company in the UK. It is based on Antoine-Vincent Arnault’s play Les Vénitiens, about two senators who hope to resolve their dispute if one of them marries the other’s daughter, Bianca. As you might expect she is in love with someone else, Falliero, a Venetian general and a trouser role. Because of all the coloratura the opera is believed to be very difficult to sing. Things now improved with Anna Devin as Bianca and Kai Rüütel as Falliero making quite a realistic pair of lovers, and together with Madeleine Pierard as Costanza, Bianca’s loyal nurse, all three sang exceptional well.
Even better was the Otello extract, when Pierard (Desdemona) reappeared to sing with Steven Ebel as Otello. It differs from Shakespeare by being set in Venice and has a diminished role in the drama for Iago. Now over the need to be natural comedians or have exceptional technique all those involved seemed more relaxed and able to commit themselves to something that needed more emoting. Ebel was a potent Otello and Pierard, despite sounding just a little too effortful, impressed as an impassioned Desdemona. Providing impressive support were Kai Rüütel’s Emilia, Ji Hyun Kim’s Rodrigo, Daniel Grice’s Elmiro and a chorus of all the others. The orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Paul Wynne Griffiths (Volker Krafft conducted Il signor Bruschino) played well throughout the first half and this Otello brought it to a suitably dramatic conclusion.
The shorter The Spirit of Venice trio of operatic ‘bleeding chunks’ raised the performance bar to another level. Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia gave us a dramatic confrontation between the famous murderess and her fourth husband, Duke Alfonso, and Gennaro, her illegitimate son, who is attracted to her without knowing Lucrezia is his mother. He has defaced the family crest – here amusingly shown as a poster of ‘Borgia’ with the B crossed through! Lucrezia and Alfonso argue how Gennaro should die. Alfonso is reminded pointedly that he is her ‘fourth husband’. This was a very well presented scene and Elisabeth Meister’s Lucrezia stomped about imperiously and embodied well both villainy and motherly concern. Her vocal security and volume were impressive, as was her Alfonso, Lukas Jakobski’s, imposing height and brooding menace. With a bit more work on either end of his vocal range he could be a magnificent Scarpia or Hagen in the future. Together Meister and Jakobski showed great stage chemistry. The twentieth-century Death in Venice excerpt was in one word – stunning. I will seek a complete performance of this work as soon as I can find one. I was gripped by the sparseness of Britten’s musical accompaniment compared with the ‘heart-on-his-sleeve’ angst revealed by the emotionally repressed Gustav von Aschenbach. who is obsessed with a beautiful young Polish boy, Tadzio, who he encounters in cholera-infested Venice (he was lithely portrayed by the dancer, Stergios Psifis). I was completely transfixed by what seems on this short acquaintance to be a mix of Peter Grimes and Ariadne auf Naxos. Steven Ebel elicited our sympathy as a compelling Aschenbach and David Grice gave two eye-and ear-catching vignettes as the Hotel Barber and Leader of the Players. They were wonderfully supported by the whole well-directed ensemble and Geoffrey Paterson conducted this extract with real style.
Veneziana ended under Paul Wynne-Griffith’s reliable baton once again with a bacchanale from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The poet, Hoffmann, is infatuated with a courtesan, Giulietta, and has lost his reflection. This was a wonderfully rousing finale to what had gone before and fun was had by all. Once again Madeleine Pierard impressed as Giulietta, as did Lukas Jakobski as Schlemil and Kai Rüütel as Nicklausse, however, Ji Hyun Kim’s voice was rather too small for Hoffmann.
The performance had begun before a closed curtain with a sly dig at the backstage world of ‘the opera’ and everyone involved. Dawid Kimberg as Gaudenzio ushered in those few scenes of Il signor Bruschino with the line ‘All the World’s a stage on which everyone’s out to make a fortune’. Whether any of those involved in this showcase will make their fortune in opera is uncertain but I wish a talented bunch of artists well whatever the future holds for them.