From Mozart to Massenet

For some of the Jette Parker Young Artists, the annual Summer performance on the main stage of the Royal Opera House marks the end of their time on the scheme. Others will be staying on for another year but all benefit from the superb showcase the event represents.

After a less than promising double bill of Walton works in the Linbury Studio at the end of last year, JPYA director Thomas Guthrie showed, and how, that he’s capable of rising to the challenge of scaling things up for a much big arena, despite the slenderest means at his disposal.

His lengthy chunk of Don Giovanni (Act 1, scenes 1-15) was very elegantly done. Zerlina (Simone Mihai) was plucked by the randy Don ( Kostas Smoriginas) from a windswept group of figures engulfed by a low ceiling of umbrellas. Straight out of a Jack Vettriano painting, it was a striking motif that ran through the production.

As the Don’s conquests, Anita Watson was a forceful Donna Anna and Pumeza Matshikiza a powerful and affecting Elvira. Smoriginas was a virile seducer, shadowed by a tuxedoed stickman in Vuyani Mlinde‘s richly-sung Leporello, while Robert Anthony Gardiner‘s stylish Don Ottavio steered clear of the yawn factor that the character can so easily induce.

If the hour-long extract left us gasping for more, what followed the interval was even better.

Massenet is far too seldom seen on the main London stages, so it’s good news that Antonio Pappano will conduct a new production of Manon at the ROH at the end of next season.

The JPYA’s gave us a succulent taster, with excerpts from the composer’s two greatest operas. The theatre’s main tabs served as an appropriate backdrop for conductor Dominic Grier‘s darkly dramatic reading of Massenet’s overture to Racine’s Phèdre. Swung apart, they revealed the intense encounter of the poet and his married love from Act 3 of Werther, conducted with verve by Daniele Rustioni.

In the role of Werther, more familiarly sung by a tenor, Changhan Lim‘s baritone battled in the lower notes against the overwhelming orchestration but Monika-Evelin Liiv‘s rich contralto and dramatic intensity made for a highly involving confrontation. The heroine of the following scene – from Act 3 of Manon – was even more compelling in Eri Nakamura’s poignant and luscious interpretation.

Both scenes were superbly sung (Ji-Min Park was a handsome Des Grieux) and effectively staged, again with the simplest and most suggestive of settings. Rather than indulge in divisive “ones to watch” speculation, I find it sufficient to say that this was a hugely enjoyable afternoon of opera delivered by a talented bunch of artists, of whom we are bound to hear a good deal more.

Old Jette Parker hand Rory MacDonald returned to conduct the Mozart and the Manon excerpt. The band was that of Welsh National Opera on great form.

– Simon Thomas

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