During the course of a season, the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists participate in many full productions, mainly in smaller roles, developing their craft, gaining main stage experience, learning from the great and the good. They cover main roles, occasionally earning the chance to step into the limelight when a starrier colleague is indisposed – an opportunity for glory either gleefully grabbed with both hands or sometimes squandered. The annual summer performance, however, allows them the chance to demonstrate what they can really do – fully staged excerpts, sometimes a complete act.

Scene from <i>Eugene Onegin</i> © ROH | Clive Barda
Scene from Eugene Onegin
© ROH | Clive Barda

Sadly, the production team – led by fellow JPYA director Richard Gerard Jones – let down the singers badly this year with a half-hearted attempt at something edgier than previous seasons. Each scene was given a grim contemporary setting against a black wall that looked like the back of some flats. Minimal props gave each performance a budget studio workshop feel rather than a main stage production. The sparse staging worked best in the starlit rendezvous scene from Janáček's Kát'a Kabanová. The last act of Eugene Onegin was set at an art gallery fundraiser and Gounod's Mireille, supposedly seeking her wounded lover, is turned into an asylum patient suffering hallucinations. Even the joyous finale of Act II from Die Fledermaus lacked fizz. 

Nick Havell's lighting was problematic, throwing characters into a strange half light in a scene from Onegin that cut the light from Yuriy Yurchuk's head. (Admittedly, he's tall, but these sort of things should be worked out in rehearsals.) Naked bulbs, acting as stars in a scene from Kát'a Kabanová, were so bright that glancing above them to see the surtitles was painful to the eyes. Worst of all was a crass animated neon sequence depicting pole-dancing girls for the opening to Act IV of Leoncavallo's La bohème causing much audience hilarity, completely at odds with the libretto's December wind whistling through Rodolfo's garret.

Emily Edmonds (Varvara) © ROH | Clive Barda
Emily Edmonds (Varvara)
© ROH | Clive Barda
The standard of singing was at a much higher level, with the ladies especially strong. Vlada Borovko gave a heartfelt Kát'a, steely top notes confidently placed, and Emily Edmonds was a mischievous Varvara and later an equally sparky Musetta. Her soprano is bright and attractive and I look forward to watching her development next season. Samuel Sakker, an understated actor, took time to settle as Boris but grew into the role, whereas David Junghoon Kim, an impressive Ruiz in the new Trovatore, quickly established himself as a natural actor with an attractive tone as Kudrjáš.

The excerpt from Eugene Onegin was curiously low voltage. Jennifer Davis showed no signs of her announced indisposition, her Tatyana securely sung, with just enough weight to her upper register. However, there was little chemistry with her Onegin, a curiously underpowered Yuriy Yurchuk. Meeting Tatyana again after a spell abroad, he scribbles a note onto a paper napkin and presses it into her hand – a neat directorial touch. But their final encounter lacked heat, she merely looking annoyed at his continued presence. James Platt had good low notes as Prince Gremin, but is rather young to have developed a persistent John Tomlinson-like beat to his dark bass.

Lauren Fagan (Mireille) © ROH | Clive Barda
Lauren Fagan (Mireille)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Lauren Fagan excelled as Gounod's Mireille, her creamy tone, fast vibrato and clear top perfectly suited to French repertoire. She is also such a convincing actress that she almost made the bizarre staging of her scene work. Fagan was also a very fine Mimì in her Bohème death scene, carrying her emergency oxygen supply in a plastic bag. Paul Wynne Griffiths conducted a taut account of Act IV. David Shipley was a sympathetic Schaunard, but it was Samuel Dale Johnson who impressed most among the men, firm-toned in Rodolfo's aria “Scuoti, o vento” – baritones should really be pressing opera houses for Leoncavallo's Bohème in preference to Puccini's!