JPYA Summer Performance 2021: entertaining – though eclectic – mix of operatic excerpts

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance 2021: Jette Parker Young Artists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Mark Elder, Richard Hetherington and Michael Papadopoulos (conductors). Recorded (directed by Jonathan Haswell) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 17.7.2021 and streamed from 23.7.2021. (JPr)

Jette Parker Young Artists in Falstaff Act II, Scene 2 Roméo

End of term for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and time for their annual Summer Performance which is as much as anything a showcase (full details below) for those singers, directors and conductors who are ‘graduating’ finding there is life after their two years working at Covent Garden. How unfortunate it has been particularly for those who joined in 2019/2020. Whilst there have been opportunities to be involved in some high-profile streamed performances during the recent pandemic woes, they will have missed out on a lot of the experience working side by side with all those they would have normally encountered in any full season. I am sure the Royal Opera staff have helped as much as they could, but their progress must have been hampered and there was evidence of that in this entertaining – though eclectic – mix of operatic excerpts: two in French and two in Italian.

Singers, director and conductors were on or just about to leave the JPYAP, apart from Sir Mark Elder (who needs no introduction), Richard Hetherington (Head of Music for The Royal Opera) and Jette Parker alumnus Gyula Nagy. I suspect young director Isabelle Kettle dressed Es Devlin’s rotating two-story set for Don Giovanni with a couple of US flags to turn it into The White House and allow for some West Wing-style machinations. Clearly when King Phillipe II entered he was POTUS with his Secret Service protection. Mobile phones were often flourished and oddly too were cigarettes, whilst costumes were contemporary, for example, Thibault was in a maroon suit, Posa in fatigues and Don Carlos in a (faux I guess?) leather biker jacket and jeans. This of course suited the political intrigues in Verdi’s Don Carlos particularly well.

Where the singers may have lost out during this past year and more is actual time on stage. Overall, there were very fine voices (even if not quite all are the finished article) but two of the most promising singers, Kseniia Nikolaieva as Eboli and recent Singer of the World Song Prize winner Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha as Élisabeth, were perhaps the least comfortable when having to move around the stage. Nikolaieva’s ‘Veil Song’ gave evidence that she has a sultry sound of incredible potential though the role of Eboli may not be ideal for her, Alexandra Lowe proved with her playful Thibault (and later as Juliette) that she was one of the standout singing actors we saw and heard. Rangwanasha was as committed as ever as Élisabeth with her warm, rich and rounded soprano, however there was no chemistry with Andrés Presno’s impassioned and frustrated Don Carlos during their encounter. Rangwanasha’s best moment was her farewell aria ‘Oh ma chère compagne’ to her female companion who Phillipe has dismissed. (I’m not sure Rangwanasha realises just how good she is.) Blaise Malaba prowled the set as an imposing and threatening Philippe ending up circling round Posa who had implored the king to stop oppressing the people of Flanders. As Posa, Gyula Nagy’s baritone was slightly gritty and he failed to convince me of their plight.

All excerpts we heard were in orchestral reductions by Pocket Productions and Verdi especially might have had difficulty recognising the thin, slightly plodding accompaniment, yet on the plus side the singers were never overwhelmed. No blame attaches to the masked orchestra or the various conductors.

Kettle carried her Konzept over to the strange inclusion of a minor second act duet from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Phillipe and Eboli wandered through the set (whose two levels were imaginatively used throughout) as I believe the Duke of Ferrara and Princess Negroni in the Donizetti opera allowing for more intrigue. Gennaro promises Orsini he will never leave his side and a lot of drinking ensues culminating in a slightly inebriated brindisi. In the trouser role of Maffio Orsini (ostensibly also as Élisabeth’s companion from Don Carlos) Stephanie Wake-Edwards was the compelling stage presence she always now is, and she will be a particularly fine Eboli one day. ‘Chemistry’ (which I am not finished with yet) was an issue again here because Felipe Manu as Gennaro – despite his bright, flowing voice and extravagant top notes – is not much of an actor. In these socially distanced times, it was very odd to see them touch hands near the end.

Alexandra Lowe (Juliette) & Egor Zhuravskii (Roméo) © Ellie Kurttz

If Élisabeth is the First Lady in this scenario then Alexandra Lowe (who was Thibault) is now ‘First Daughter’ as Juliette in Gounod’s opera. She comes out on the balcony for a ciggie as Roméo conceals himself before climbing up a ladder towards her. Hearing she loves him even though he is a Montague they profess their love for one other in a tender and very appealing duet (Ô nuit divine!’) ending with Juliette sitting astride Roméo before the nurse calls her away. At last, there was genuine and unconcealed chemistry between two singers, Lowe is undoubtedly already a star singer with her pure soprano tones and Egor Zhuravskii (who had been that Secret Service agent) announced himself as a tenor to look out for in the future and I thought his refined mezza voce for Roméo’s closing ‘Va! repose en paix! (‘Go! Sleep peacefully’) was superb.

Finally, much fun was had by all in the riotous ensemble shenanigans of Verdi’s Falstaff (Act I, Scene 2). Though wrong Shakespeare play it was very much ‘Hamlet without the prince’ because we do not see Falstaff who has sent Alice Ford and Meg identical letters. Of course, nobody here got a letter (how many worthwhile ones do you now get? and everything came in a text! They compare them and together with Mistress Quickly and Nanetta (Alice’s daughter), vow to punish Falstaff. Separately Bardolfo and Pistola make Ford (Alice’s husband) aware of Falstaff’s plan and he vows to disguise himself and go and trap him. During some of the chaos Nanetta and Fenton slip away for a romantic interlude. It ends with the men and the women (with wine bottles in hand) separately planning their revenge. As a quartet the men were better than the women since comedy did not come naturally to all four of them. Look out if you get a chance for the men’s ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, touch no evil’ moment and there’s more than a hint of Puccini’s bohemians to them. I am loath to single out anyone, but Stephanie Wake-Edwards caught the eye and ear again as Meg and, for me, Gyula Nagy was more impressive as Ford than Posa. Alexandra Lowe was a sheer delight as Nanetta and Felipe Manu was an ardent and lyrical Fenton, yet while never less than charming he does tend to sing to himself far too much.

So, I guess it is goodbye to the class who started in 2019/20 and I wish these young artists all the very best in the difficult times ahead for those in the arts.

Jim Pritchard

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance 2021

Director – Isabelle Kettle
Set designer – Es Devlin (this performance takes place on the set of Don Giovanni)
Lighting designer – Theo Sanders
Costume production and design – Donna Guadagnini

Verdi – Don Carlos (excerpt from Act II)
Conductor – Sir Mark Elder
Éboli – Kseniia Nikolaieva
Thibault – Alexandra Lowe
Élisabeth – Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha
Comtesse – Stephanie Wake-Edwards
Rodrigue – Gyula Nagy
Don Carlos – Andrés Presno
Phillipe – Baise Malaba

Donizetti – Lucrezia Borgia (duet from Act II)
Conductor – Michael Papadopoulos
Gennaro – Filipe Manu
Maffio Orsini – Stephanie Wake-Edwards

Gounod – Roméo et Juliette (Act II balcony scene)
Conductor – Richard Hetherington
Roméo – Egor Zhuravskii
Juliette – Alexandra Lowe

Verdi – Falstaff (Act II, Scene 2)
Conductor – Sir Mark Elder
Meg – Stephanie Wake-Edwards
Alice – Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha
Quickly – Kseniia Nikolaieva
Nanetta – Alexandra Lowe
Dr Caius – Andrés Presno
Bardolfo – Egor Zhuravskii
Fenton – Filipe Manu
Pistola – Blaise Malaba
Ford – Gyula Nagy

For more about what is on at the Royal Opera House click here.

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