School’s out for summer and with it the opportunity for the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists to showcase their talents in the end of term main stage performance. Throughout the year, these young singers tread the boards in supporting roles, refining their craft and understudying some of the major artists. A collection of operatic excerpts under the loose title “Betrothal and Betrayal” offered chances for many to shine, although it wasn’t until the all-French second half that things really took off.

Excerpt from <i>Adriana Lecouvreur</i> © Clive Barda
Excerpt from Adriana Lecouvreur
© Clive Barda

Shakespeare bookended the performance. While Verdi’s Falstaff closes the Royal Opera’s season this summer, it was good to be reminded of another incarnation of Shakespeare’s fat knight. Otto Nicolai’s overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor was given an ebullient account, the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Jonathan Santagada. Strings swaggered and it was good to hear brass playing of such precision from the pit.

Despite some lovely long phrasing from Anush Hovhannisyan in “Come in quest’ora bruna”, the excerpt from Act I of Simon Boccanegra failed to raise the pulse. Amelia awaits her lover, Gabriele Adorno, in the garden of the Grimaldi palace, just before sunrise. Used to the pillars of Elijah Moshinsky’s garden terrace in Covent Garden's usual staging, with its effective lighting suggesting dawn, it was a shock to find ourselves in the oak-panelled shell of the set to Falstaff, where Amelia rests against a table, surrounded by chandeliers. Direction was rudimentary, leaving Hovhannisyan and Samuel Sakker’s Gabriele to their own devices. Sakker’s tenor has a distinct flutter, but it blooms nicely at the top of his range. James Platt’s strong bass impressed in Fiesco’s brief lines.

The long extract from Act I of Adriana Lecouvreur was an odd choice, not least because it didn’t give any of the young singers much to play with, other than Yuriy Yurchuk’s sympathetic – if youthful – stage manager, Michonnet. Nelly Miricioiu, guesting as the famous actress Adriana, still knows how to milk a scene, even if she can no longer meet the role’s vocal demands. Director Greg Eldridge scored with a neat transition from theatre ‘backstage’ – with proscenium frontcloth lowered – to dressing rooms to theatrical stage for Adriana to mime her solo.

Samuel Dale Johnson (Zurga) and Lauren Fagan (Léïla) © Clive Barda
Samuel Dale Johnson (Zurga) and Lauren Fagan (Léïla)
© Clive Barda
Vocal ignition eventually sparked with the opening of Act III to Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles. A clutch of pot plants – were we in Windsor’s local nursery? – did little to create a steamy Sinhalese atmosphere, but Australians Lauren Fagen and Samuel Dale Johnson were exotically costumed and their acting certainly raised the temperature. Johnson gave a very fine account of Zurga’s “L'orage est calmé”, his baritone light and flexible enough to cope with its upper reaches. Michele Gamba drew some exciting playing from the pit. Fagan had a lovely silvery sheen to her soprano as Léïla pleaded for Nadir’s life, fuelling the flames of Zurga’s jealousy. Sparks flew!

Irish mezzo Rachel Kelly had the stage to herself in an aria from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. The abandoned Marguerite awaits Faust’s return in “D'amour l'ardente flamme” and Kelly, wrapped in furs, impressed with her warm mezzo, with glorious, even emission across Berlioz’s long phrases. I’d put money on her singing a fantastic Les nuits d’été.

Kiandra Howarth (Juliette) and Luis Gomes (Roméo) © Clive Barda
Kiandra Howarth (Juliette) and Luis Gomes (Roméo)
© Clive Barda

Kelly and Fagan made it as far as the semi-finals of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia singing competition, the final of which takes place at the ROH on Sunday. Among those finalists will be Kiandra Howarth, another Australian on the JPYA programme. Howarth was on splendid form in Juliette’s “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Act IV of Gounod’s take on Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers. She has an impressive range of vocal colours in her armoury and plenty of power too. In the tomb scene from Act V, Howarth was joined by the plangent-toned Luis Gomes as Roméo. The lighting here, however, was overly bright, rendering Gomes’ lighting of the candelabra to find Juliette’s body utterly pointless. Direction was cautious too: Roméo took his poison and then sat down; Juliette daintily slashed her wrist and was then preoccupied with not getting fake blood over her white gown. Vocally, though, their duet brought proceedings to a fine end. Don’t be surprised if Howarth does rather well in Sunday’s Operalia final…