Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House was that there was nothing wrong with it. This is rare in opera houses where so many components can go wrong. The programme, titled as Veneziana, was an intelligent and witty compilation of operatic excerpts with Venetian themes. Whoever came up with this idea and selection deserves credit. Unfortunately it is far from clear from the programme notes who are the persons responsible for the wise choice. The only non-Venetian part of the production was the stage set which was borrowed from Act I of Tosca: this served as stage design for each of the operatic scenes of Veneziana. The presence of the Tosca set, referring to Rome, is likely to have been more a pragmatic than an artistic decision as Tosca was performed on the stage barely two hours after Veneziana concluded.
Throughout all six parts of the programme the musicality of the stage direction was striking. Director Rodula Gaitanou choreographs the music sensitively but also with humour when text and music so require. She also demonstrates a genuine insight into operatic characters, without resorting to stock gestures. Gaitanou's realisation of the opening of Act II of Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten was as deeply moving as witty and musical. The musical contrasts of Aschenbach's tragedy with the Venetian commedia dell'arte interlude are unlikely to have been more clearly and more dramatically staged in opera houses throughout the world.
Notwithstanding my appreciation for Gaitanou's staging, I was puzzled by the supposedly light-hearted opening which must have been a theatrical in-joke. Encouraged by whistle calls but still with evident reluctance to work, the characters of this overture entered the stage through the closed curtains. But immediately afterwards the whole of the first aria, which opened scenes 4 - 6 of Rossini's Il Signor Bruscino (1813), was still delivered in front of the curtains. This seemed a bizarre contrast to the preceding entrance of the theatrical characters, even though arguably the opening words of the aria 'Nel teatro del gran mondo' ('All the word’s a stage' according to the English surtitles) could negate the need for a stage. The top notes of baritone Dawid Kimberg (Gaudenzio) were occasionally strained but otherwise his comic and assured delivery served as a good prelude to what was to come. The rest of the Il Signor Bruscino excerpts were transferred to the stage where tenor Ji Hyun Kim (Florville) had excellent opportunities to display his acrobatic as well as vocal virtuosity. A very short gentleman but with vocal qualities similar to those of Juan Diego Flórez, Ji Hyun Kim is an artist to watch. The trio of scene 6 was remarkable by its virtuoso delivery by Kimberg, Ji Hyun Kim and baritone ZhengZhong Zhou (Signor Bruschino).
In scenes 9 -10 of Act I from Rossini's Bianca e Falliero (1819) the soloists sounded more than only promising young artists. The effortless and charming vocal delivery of soprano Anna Devin (Bianca) would be acceptable on any level while mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel (Falliero) is evidently a highly musical and truly dramatic mature artist. In the third of the Rossini operas (scenes 12-17, Act I, Otello, 1816) the top notes of soprano Madeleine Pierard (Desdemona) sounded a bit harsh but there was plenty of passion to see and hear from her as well as from all other participants. After his comic role in Il Signor Bruscino, it was gratifying to hear tenor Ji Hyun Kim in a truly cantabile excerpt (as Rodrigo). The stylised fight in the last scene looked (although was clearly not intended to be) slightly comic which seemed a shame as it contradicted the drama and, more importantly, the dramatic music.
After the three Rossini operas (and after the interval in the programme) Donizetti followed: in scenes 4-6 from Act I of Lucretia Borgia (1833) soprano Elisabeth Meister (Lucretia) and bass Lukas Jakobski (Duke Alfonso) astonished in their highly dramatic scene. Jakobski's effortless bass voice is a wonderful tool and was well matched by Meister’s musicality and technical assurance. Both of these artists would bring quality to any of the world's opera houses. Tenor Steven Ebel's diction and understanding the character of Gustav von Aschenbach (opening of Act II, Death in Venice, 1973) is exemplary; he reminded me of the late and much missed Philip Langridge in the role. The finale of the programme, an extract from Act II of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1880), felt somewhat short in comparison with the previous excerpts – or was it just too much fun not to go on a bit longer? – but it felt as an appropriate choice for bringing the curtain down.
These 'Young Artists' proved themselves eloquently in their solo roles as well as in their ensemble work. Indeed, their ten-member chorus outshined many choruses of much larger numbers. Their stamina also deserves credit. Most of them appeared in several scenes during the programme. In addition, Lukas Jakobski sang Angelotti and ZhengZhong Zhou took the part of Sciarrone in ROH's star-studded Tosca (with Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel) just two hours after their Young Artists' marathon. I don't have much good to say about music education in distinguished establishments. But on the strength of Venezia, the Young Artists programme of the Royal Opera House gets my vote.
By Agnes Kory
Photo: Elisabeth Mesiter by Wadey James