To celebrate and introduce the influx of new artists onto the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists' scheme, the company presented a double bill of Berio's Folk Songs and the UK premiere of Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge's El gato con botas (Puss-in-Boots) in the Linbury Studio Theatre.
These events are always keenly-anticipated as not only do they provide the perfect backdrop to showcase the company's burgeoning new talent, but they also include some notable alumni from previous years who are largely responsible for the musical performance and staging.
In the first half we were treated to a mesmerising performance of Berio's Folk Songs by the Serbian soprano Dušica Bijelić who joined the programme last year, and who has already appeared on the main stage as Tebaldo in Don Carlos and Anna in Nabucco. The thirty-minute span of Berio's iconic setting of 13 folk songs requires a soprano who must have the ability to act with the voice, sing in seven languages and dialects, and change character and mood in the blinking of an eye. For so young a singer, Bijelić's totally assured performance was nothing short of a revelation, and she is clearly destined for great things. Berio's unique soundscape was superbly realised by the Southbank Sinfonia under Italian conductor Michele Gamba who also joined the programme last year.
El gato con botas turned out to be a hitherto unknown little gem. Montsalvatge's one-act fantasy opera tells the tale of a hapless, inebriated miller who has inherited a mangy old moggy. It transpires that this is no ordinary feline tale, as the miller's cat morphs into a swashbuckling Errol Flynn-type character who proceeds to take his owner on a serious of fantastical journeys, in the process meeting a King, a Princess and an Ogre. Aided and abetted by a lucid staging by Pedro Ribeiro and some magical puppetry from members of the Red Cloud Teatro de Marionetas in Portugal, El gato con botas is a brilliant, and funny little opera which deserves to be seen more often, and would be the perfect introduction to opera for kids of all ages.
Soprano Rachel Kelly was beguiling as the Cat whilst Luis Gomes used his ringing tenor to telling effect as the inebriated Miller. There was strong support from Anush Hovhannisyan as the Princess and Michel de Souza as the King. In the scene where the Cat goads the Ogre to transform into a lion, bird, then mouse (so the Cat can catch him), Jihoon Kim sounded appropriately cavernous and suitably Alberich-like, despite not having a Tarnhelm at his disposal.
With sprightly conducting from Paul Wingfield, this evening not only revealed plenty of exciting young talent, but an un justly neglected opera as well.