Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, October 18th 2011.

For those with an inquisitive ear for new upcoming talent on the operatic scene, the introductory Meet the Jette Parker Young Artists Week is an obligatory calendar event.

The centrepiece of this autumn’s week-long offering at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio is an intriguing double-bill of Berlioz’s song-cycle Les Nuits d’été and Massenet’s Le Portrait de Manon, a one-act sequel to the composer’s ultimate masterpiece for the operatic stage, and here receiving its Royal Opera premiere.

From the opening bars of Des Grieux’s celebrated air “Ah fuyez, douce image”, hauntingly played on the clarinet, the score is peppered with familiar quotations from the earlier work. Des Grieux is now an old man, still obsessed with memories of his lost love Manon, and keeps a portrait of her in a sealed box. He is worried when his impressionable young nephew Jean (a trouser role enthusiastically played by Hanna Hipp) tells of his love for a penniless girl, Aurore (a fresh-voiced Susana Gaspar), convinced that she is little more than a gold-digger. Persuaded by his friend Tiberge (an amusing turn by Pablo Bemsch), Des Grieux comes to realise that their love is genuine when they discover the portrait and it is revealed that Aurore is, in fact, the niece of his beloved Manon.

Director Pedro Ribeiro makes the best case possible for this charming bon-bon of a piece that will stimulate little in those not already familiar with the earlier full-scale work. The stand-out voice here belongs to baritone Zheng Zhong Zhou in the central role of Des Grieux, whose burnished, golden tone allied to excellent French mark him out as a real talent to watch.

Ribeiro also has the unenviable task of directing Berlioz’s song-cycle which almost defies any kind of dramatic staging. Indeed the songs stand up very well on their own as short, individual mini-dramas in themselves. They deal with absence and the pain of losing a loved one, but staging them amongst a pile of mattresses à la Tracey Emin does not always clarify our understanding of the messages in Theophile Gautier’s text.

Musically, we are on much more familiar territory here, and with that comes the curse of comparison with favourite interpretations of the past. We are used to hearing the cycle performed in concert by one solo voice - the ground-breaking 1963 recording by the great French soprano Régine Crespin still remains the benchmark for many - but Berlioz did, in fact, intend these songs to be distributed amongst a number of different voice types, so it seems a natural choice to follow this arrangement for our young artists. Whilst none of them here could hope to approach Crespin’s sovereign luminosity of both voice and text, Hanna Hipp certainly makes her mark with a beautifully controlled rendition of the most celebrated song “Le Spectre de la Rose”, which in turn proves the most sensitive piece of staging in an otherwise awkward second half.

The young players of the Southbank Sinfonia offer a sensual glow in the Massenet under Geoffrey Paterson, but a much lighter touch is required in the Berlioz, conducted by Volker Krafft.

- Richard Russell