The curtain fell on another Royal Opera season this weekend, giving the Jette Parker Young Artists an opportunity to flex their artistic muscles in the annual main stage show. Whilst able to monitor progress in smaller roles through the season, these fully staged ‘opening acts’ of Donizetti’s La favorite and Mozart’s Così fan tutte allow one to see and hear these talented singers in sharper focus. This end of term school report reveals lovely singing, fine comic acting, a few examples of questionable direction and a bold prediction of stardom.

Dušica Bijelić, Ashley Riches, David Butt Philip and Michel de Souza © Clive Barda
Dušica Bijelić, Ashley Riches, David Butt Philip and Michel de Souza
© Clive Barda

If you want to have your operatic head seriously messed with, imagine the following: Così fan tutte staged on the Act I/IV set of John Copley’s soon-to-be-mothballed La bohème, which closed with a double performance on Saturday afternoon and evening. Throw in Don Alfonso sporting frock coat, wig and cane, looking for all the world like Baron Scarpia, and the mash-up of references had my head spinning. Greg Eldridge and the cast seemed to relish the situation; Mimì’s bonnet and Marcello’s painting smock were among the garments tried on by Ferrando and Guglielmo when dressing up as ‘Albanians’. Copley’s set is a tricky one to navigate, yet Eldridge made good use of its different levels. He was on less secure footing in the Overture, during which a busy café scene (Momus?) was clumsily established via less than convincing chorus members (whose presence was entirely redundant in Così as the Act I chorus was cut). Eldridge also overplayed the comic business by other characters during arias – distracting attention from the singer.

Kiandra Howarth (Fiordiligi) and Rachel Kelly (Dorabella) © Clive Barda
Kiandra Howarth (Fiordiligi) and Rachel Kelly (Dorabella)
© Clive Barda

The cast was solid, if not all participants were entirely at home in Mozart – the toughest of taskmasters when it comes to vocal purity. Kiandra Howarth’s feisty Fiordiligi was a highlight; her “Come scoglio” displayed excellent tone and superb top notes, although lower notes lacked weight. Rachel Kelly’s Dorabella was similarly delightful, “Smanie implacabile” revealing a warm, supple mezzo. Dušica Bijelić wasn’t as sparky a Despina as I’d hoped for – there was plenty of wily character, but she was vocally subdued.

Of the men, Ashley Riches impressed as Don Alfonso, his dark baritone crisply delivered. While the ladies gazed at the portraits of their recently departed lovers, Alfonso also opened a locket – perhaps of the lady who had caused such bitter cynicism in him? If so, it was a nice touch. David Butt Philip, a natural comedian, sang a stylish, well-paced “Un aura amoroso”. He lacks some of the lyric light touch needed for Mozart and he will sing heavier repertoire soon – Rodolfo beckons (at ENO). Michel de Souza occasionally sounded woolly in his lower register as Guglielmo, but mustered a solid “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo” (Mozart’s original aria, often replaced by the shorter “Non siate ritrosi”). Michele Gamba paced the Welsh National Opera Orchestra well, taut rhythms and lively pacing to the fore.

Nadezhda Karyazina (Léonor) © Clive Barda
Nadezhda Karyazina (Léonor)
© Clive Barda

How utterly cruel of The Royal Opera to offer us Act I, rather than Act III, of Donizetti’s La favorite (an opera yet to staged by the company). Granted, I suspect the choice of the first act was merited on the voice types left among the JPYA once the cast for Così had been determined, but Act III contains the opera’s greatest music. It denied us the chance to hear Nadezhda Karyazina sing Léonor’s “O mon Fernand” and I’m not sure I can forgive them unless they cast her in something big very soon. Karyzina has a dark, incisive mezzo with a plush, velvety lower register that is beguiling. She has impressed in La traviata (quite the best Flora I’ve seen for years) and the recent Manon Lescaut (the madrigal singer) and I’ve no doubt she’ll develop into an Eboli to be reckoned with.

La favorite concerns the love of the young monk (Fernand) for a mysterious woman (Léonor) who turns out to the King of Castile's mistress. Luis Gomes impressed as Fernand; a lyric tenor, with the potential to get bigger, he phrased with elegance, even if there is a tightness around his top notes. Jihoon Kim, whose vibrato I’ve previously found rather intrusive, was on steadier form here as Balthazar. Anush Hovhannisyan’s intonation was not always secure as Inès, Léonor’s confidante, although she spun a delicate, descending chromatic run at the end of her scene with chorus.

Eldridge made use of the stage machinery and some evocative lighting in this act to suggest monastery cloisters, with a white drape to create the scene on the island of Leon for Scene 2. Traditionally costumed, the singers were left to their own devices, however. The real drama came through the singing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the orchestra, Paul Wingfield drawing weighty playing, especially from a satisfyingly secure brass section.

Several starry names among the alumni are testament to the quality of the JPYA programme and it will be interesting to monitor the progress of these young singers as many of them ‘graduated’ after this performance.