A split-level stage featuring an ornate stairwell and scaffolding was the setting for this the tenth Jette Parker Young Artists’ Summer Performance. Entitled ‘Veneziana’, the specially compiled programme embodied the visions of Venice dreamt by Rossini, Donizetti, Britten and Offenbach in six sets of Opera Scenes. Greek-born Rodula Gaitano directed ten young singers in a selection of impassioned Venetian scenes from the nineteenth to twentieth-century opera repertory. Gaitano exploited every inch of the stage to create character, making her cast interact on a very physical level; but ultimately this concert was all about voices.

David Grice with Madeleine Pierard © Richard H Smith
David Grice with Madeleine Pierard
© Richard H Smith

The major challenge with this type of performance is to flesh out character and create convincing on-stage relationships in a tiny length of time. Exctracts of Rossini opera occupied the whole of the first half, giving the performers chance to express farce, tumultous romance and conflict Scenes 4-6 from Il signor Bruschino were an excellent choice to relax the company and audience, its farcical argument warm and good-humoured despite the music not being of Rossini’s most memorable. It was also a clever move to begin with one of the composer’s lesser-performed operas; the singers seemed free from the weight of precedent. As Chinese Baritone ZhengZhong Zhou’s Signor Bruschino mimed passing wind to demonstrate his rejection of Florville, (who claimed to be his son), we instantly warmed to his larger-than-life acting. But the gorgeous Tenor sound produced by Korean Ji Hyun Kim as Florville was underpowered whilst Zhou commanded the stage for this long opening section.

The second scene was far more vocally convincing; Kai Rüütel’s Falliero and Anna Devin’s Bianca engaged in zealous loving angst that included a kiss between Rüütel in her trouser role and the hypnotising Devin. Scenes 9-10 from Bianca e Falliero were the least interesting in terms of plot, but the two singers acted with verve to bring their chemistry to vivid life despite a dull visual palate. But it was in Scenes 12-17 from Otello that were the triumph of the first half; they are some of the most tense in the opera as Desdemona realises her father has another husband in mind than her beloved Falliero. Madeleine Pierard’s Desdemona was one of the highlights of the evening, her crystal tone and technical accomplishment shining through her fast but controlled vibrato. Showing the star quality that led her to the role of Noemie in the recent Cendrillon at the ROH, she was vulnerable and impassioned in all the right places and boasted evenness across her impressive range.

As the curtain rose for the fourth time, we were launched straight into Scenes 4-6 from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Lukas Jakobski made a menacing Duke Alfonso, his strong, direct Bass voice and imposing physique a winning combination. With a more fluent acting technique, Jakobski will make a superb villain; he surely has a great Scarpia (Tosca) in him along with dozens of other domineering bass roles. As Jakobski towered over Elisabeth Meister’s Lucrezia, their chemistry was convincing and they both sang with confidence and maturity. This was one of the standout scenes of the performance, dangerous, tense and vocally secure.

We were then whisked from the excess of this early nineteenth-century melodrama to Britten’s subtle but deeply nasty Death in Venice; an effective transition because the large cast made an interesting contrast to the duel-like tension between Alfonso and Lucrezia beforehand. Steven Ebel made a charismatic Gustav von Aschenbach wandering the cholera-stricken streets of Venice, but occasional vocal glitches surfaced during his more sustained passages, suggesting that his breath support needs work. In this excerpt however he was a springboard for arguably the most promising talent of the evening, Daniel Grice in the Hotel Barber/Leader of the Players. He embraced this part as one would a lead role and seemed to revel in his character’s ostentatiousness. Most importantly, his Bass-baritone was simply beautiful, well-pitched, firm in tone and capable of It is hard to pigeon-hole Grice into any one type of role, his macabre playfulness here offset his appearance earlier in the programme as Elmiro in Otello.

The final scene, an excerpt from Act II of Les Contes d’Hoffmann centred around a banqueting table with a rousing group finale, served to confirm the impressions formed in the rest of the evening. The company as a whole were strong together but inconsistent as individuals. Ju Hyun Kim’s Hoffmann once again lacked volume and Madeleine Pierard’s Giulietta and Lukas Jakobski’s Schlemil were once again on top form. However, the consistently excellent performance from sopranos Elizabeth Meister and the mellower-voiced Anna Devin’s and Dawid Kimberg’s deserve mention. Daniel Grice showed himself not only promising but an already outstanding bass-baritone and conductor Paul Wynne Griffiths was reliable at the baton. But we were left wanting a really strong tenor or contralto to complete the vocal balance and, it must be said, several singers still need to tighten up their support and pronunciation of Italian.

***11