Involvement versus Mimicry

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Massenet, Mascagni, Richard Strauss, Rossini, Mozart: Artists of The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / David Syrus, James Hendry, Matthew Scott Rogers (conductors).  Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 16.7.2017. (JB)

Jette Parker Young Artists summer performance; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 14 July 2017; Mascagni: L’amico Fritz, Act II (‘Cherry’ Duet) Conductor: David Syrus Suzel: Francesca Chiejina Fritz: Thomas Atkins Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA
Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz Act II (‘Cherry’ Duet)
Francesca Chiejina (Suzel) & Thomas Atkins (Fritz) © ROH/Clive Barda


Director: Gerard Jones
Lighting Designer: Matthew Mulberry
Movement: Anajali Mehra

Verdi: I due Foscari, Act II (duet)
Conductor – David Syrus
Lucrezia Contarini – Vlada Borovko
Jacopo Foscari – David Junghoon Kim

Massenet: Cendrillon, Act II (duet)
Conductor: Matthew Scott Rogers
Cendrillon – Kate Howden
Prince – Angela Simkin

Mascagni: L’amico Fritz, Act I (duet)
Conductor – David Syrus
Suzel – Francesca Chiejina
Fritz – Thomas Atkins

Strauss: Arabella, Act III (final duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Arabella – Jennifer Davis
Mandryka – Gyula Nagy

Rossini: Le Comte Ory, Act II (final scene)
Conductor: James Hendry
Countess Adèle de Formoutiers – Francesca Chiejina
Isolier – Angela Simkin
Count Ory – David Junghoon Kim

Mozart: Don Giovanni, Act II (from Zerlina finding Masetto to end)
Conductor: David Syrus
Fortepiano continuo – Nick Fletcher
Donna Anna – Vlada Borovko
Donna Elvira – Jennifer Davis
Zerlina – Haegee Lee
Don Ottavio – Thomas Atkins
Don Giovanni – Gyula Nagy
Leporello – David Shipley
Masetto/Commendatore – Simon Shibambu
Ensemble – Francesca Chiejina, Angela Simkin, David Junghoon Kim

Everyone knows that Antonio Pappano began his career as a répétiteur to his father’s singing pupils. He would hurry from school to his father’s studio to accompany a galaxy of young hopefuls. In later life he said he looked back wistfully at the missed football games and not being able to spend much time with his school pals. But Pappano senior had clearly heard something extraordinary in his son’s playing and wanted to get this out of him. As an educationalist myself, I hold the view that it’s not what you can put into the student so much as what you can get out of them. Put that another way and you have the unfashionable view that no one can ever teach you anything that you don’t already know.

Whichever view you take, Papa Pappano indisputably put the operatic repertoire into his son’s very soul. This is a rare, hundred-degree involvement. Later, when Daniel Barenboim was auditioning in Bayreuth, he famously said, ‘I’m not interested in the soprano, but I’d like to keep the pianist’. Thus was a firm friendship formed between these two men.

Antonio Pappano was underage when he found and married opera. Some of the players of the ROH orchestra were unhappy when they first worked with him.  ‘Sweaty enthusiasm is all very well,’ one of them told me, ‘but there are times, when as an orchestral player, you need to know form a glance at the conductor, which beat of the bar he is on.’  Evidently, the maestro’s stick technique was not always clear. But he has humility too. When this was pointed out to him, it was put right. In the meantime, he was turning Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra into one of the top five orchestras of Europe. This was a very good orchestra under his predecessor, Daniele Gatti, but Pappano brought the Ceciliani to another level, between sweat and baton.

I say all this to underline my contention that involvement is everything in the world of opera. Miss it and you miss the opera. And with one exception, all the singers I heard tonight missed for me rather than hit. The exception was the New Zealand tenor, Thomas Atkins, who was a memorable Don Ottavio. Was it Ernest Newman who said that Ottavio was all heart and no head? Well Mr Atkins is just that. When he began ‘Il mio tessoro’ I thought well this one, at least has been listening carefully to the John McCormack recordings. (Sorry about that, Thomas, but by this point in the evening I was used to mimicry standing in for involvement.) As he went on, I was thrilled to discover I was wrong. In 1905, McCormack went to Milan to try to perfect his breathing technique with Vincenzo Sabatini. That great teacher realised he was hearing the most wonderfully, naturally-placed voice, and that he should make only minimum adjustments to not disturb this natural flow. That set up McCormack for the rest of his long career, becoming the most requested tenor after Caruso in the RCA Victor catalogue.

The sweet vulnerability that you hear in McCormick, you hear in Atkins. But Atkins has made this sound his own: it comes from within. Ottavio and Atkins are one and the same person. No one was mimicking anyone else.

That was not the case with Thomas Atkins’s first appearance of the evening as the protagonist in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz.  Mascagni’s attempt at a pastorale, following on from his immense success with the melodrama of Cavalleria rusticana (based on a hugely successful story of Verga) was a flop at the opening and has mostly met with the same misfortune at every other staging. Indeed, I find it puzzling why it was presented here. If it hadn’t worked with Caruso, it would be unlikely to work with Atkins.

Atkins’s Italian was unfocused and slovenly here, where it would be exemplary in Mozart and da Ponte; he had clearly appreciated the way in which Mozart’s music brings da Ponte’s wit and charm to life: Atkins’s soul responded to all that.  In your defence, Thomas, it has to be said that that challenge was not there with Mascagni. So you audibly floundered. And besides, your partner, soprano, Francesca Chiejina, sounded to me uncomfortably out of tune in her top notes as well as phonetically incomprehensible. Mascagni’s defenders say he was reaching toward operetta in this piece but never quite making it. Shouldn’t that be a warning to leave the opera alone? If you really must perform Fritz, it would have to be done with inverted commas round it as a spoof of itself. But that gets into a sophistication I would not ask of younger singers. Nor should their coaches.

Another disastrous repertory mistake was a scene from Massenet’s Cendrillon (Cinderella). There are lots of Massenet works which would make an admirable invitation to bring out talent in young, formed voices. But Cendrillon is not at the top of the list. The French language is the most difficult of all European languages to sing in. It can easily sound meandering, aimless and downright ugly. As it tended to here. Kate Howden stood in for the indisposed Emily Edmonds as Cinderella, with Angela Simkin as her Prince. Lucky Emily, I thought. But Kate and Angela should not have been subject to this painful ordeal. Matthew Scott Rogers’s dead-slow and stop conducting didn’t help much either.

James Hendry looks very young from the programme’s photo and hails from the Royal Northern College of Music. He conducted an ensemble piece from the finale of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory in which, where he didn’t sound nervous (a trifle uncertain in places) he sounded appropriately vivacious with a cast which did everything to try to hold him back. But the little lad was having none of that. I much enjoyed his keep-up or shut-up approach. Rossini would have hugged him. People in the audience said this was sung in French. But you could have fooled me there.

There are excellent opportunities for baritone and soprano in Verdi’s early melodrama, I due Foscari with Jacopo, the elder of the Foscari brothers and Lucrezia, as his wife. But neither David Junghoon Kim nor Vlada Borovko had either the security and firmness of voice or roundness of tone which the roles demand. And their attempts at Italian were disappointing. David Syrus, who conducted most of the evening (including Don Giovanni) had well-chosen tempos throughout, and some admirable attention to help any singers’ weakness.

Obviously something seems radically wrong with the language training of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, whichever language you want to consider. I was also pleased to see that the singers had been offered advice from such luminaries as Thomas Allen, Josephine Barstow, Gerald Finley and Simon Keenlyside. But I confess I could not especially hear advice which might have come from those quarters.

The staging looked as though it had been left outside in a damp fog all night. There is nothing wrong with either low-budget productions or minimal staging. But both need to be imbued with intelligence and above all, imagination. There wasn’t much evidence of either: Gerard Jones is credited as Director, Matthew Mulberry as Lighting Designer, and Anjali Mehra for Movement.

I am never happier than when I am learning something. And sometimes there is more to be learned from a seeming-negative experience than a positive one. This is not my application for a licence to be hypercritical. But it is my application for permission to be honest within my limited parameters. Others who were there will have differing views and I hope you will tell Seen and Heard International what you thought.

Jack Buckley

For more about the Jette Parker Young Artists Programe click here.

3 thoughts on “Involvement versus Mimicry”

  1. Interesting thoughts Jack.
    I agree with your many of your observations regarding the language skills and staging. However, whilst I thought also Thomas Atkins’s tone showed excellent promise, especially its fluid changes of timbre between the ‘Cherry’ duet and Mozart, I disagree with some of your other criticisims. The Massenet was vocally mismatched but I thought the orchestra sounded the best of the evening under Scott Rogers. David Junghoon Kim stole the vocal stage in both the Verdi and Rossini, and showed himself to be a tenor of exceptional skill especially in Verdian repertoire – I expect many Alfredos will be in his future.
    The ‘Don Giovanni’ I thought was, musically at least, the low-point of the evening with the first half scenes consistently interesting if not always quite pulled off.
    Finally, who are we to question the quality of the training of these young artists based on a single performance? Judging by their list of tutors, they are some of the best vocal and language experts in the business – if you sensed as many deficiencies as you listed above, perhaps there were other factors at play.

    • Thank you for taking the trouble for sending in your interesting observations. We know there are lots of readers of Seen and Heard out there and we are sure you do not always have the same opinion as our reviewers. It is always good when we get feedback with your reactions to the opera, concerts or reviews.

      • No problem Jim, it’s a great reminder that we all experience art in different ways. Interestingly I’m listening to de Billy conduct ‘Cendrillon’ at the moment, and it’s certainly much much slower than we were treated to on Sunday night.


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