The Jette Parker Young Artists double bill of Jules Massenet’s rare one-act opera Le Portrait de Manon (sequel to Manon) and Hector Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été, featured romance, mystique and sumptuous singing. It has its inelegant features but the latest offering from the Royal Opera House’s emerging artists team brought imagination and wit to the programme, difficult to stage though it must surely have been.

Susana Gaspar © The Royal Opera / Richard Hubert Smith
Susana Gaspar
© The Royal Opera / Richard Hubert Smith

Impressive in the annual JPYA Opera Scenes concert back in July, Zhengzhong Zhou made a brave start to Le Portrait de Manon as central character Des Grieux. Heavily made up as the aged lover of Manon, Zhou was expressive and his baritone voice has a strong, direct but not too abrasive tone, although he still sounds restricted in the upper register and at louder moments, and both his French accent and acting became increasingly laboured tonight. This could, however, be attributed to Pablo Bemsch’s emergence onto the scene. Bemsch thoroughly charmed us with a witty and convincing portrayal of Tiberge, simultaneously anxious but in control of the situation and seemingly at ease with the French language. His sweet-centred tenor voice exuded urgency, anger and humour equally effectively.

As for the opera's young lovers, the voices of Polish Mezzo-Soprano Hanna Hipp as Jean and Portugese Soprano Susana Gaspar as Aurore blended perfectly. Fawning over each other with rather awkward inane grins, the power of their performance lay in their vocal dexterity and acting. The addition of pop-up silhouettes to illustrate Jean’s fascination with his romantic history lesson was endearing, and could have been played up more often. But props aside, as the narrative unfolded, the characterisations became larger than life against the simplicity of Sophie Mosberger’s sparse set. A single roughly painted corridor slanting up to a single door, centre-stage, provided a haunting symbol of entrance and painful exit.

Les Nuits d’été, Berlioz’s sublime song cycle woven from threads of absence and longing, was perhaps more affecting. This was curious considering that some of its most golden musical moments were clumsily handled. It started awfully; the reliable Southbank Sinfonia raced ahead of Pablo Bemsch as he sang Villanelle from atop a pile of four mattresses. Left playing catch up, Bemsch’s confidence seemed to dim momentarily, and he never quite recovered; his second song, Au Cimetière, was blighted by singing consistently under the note. Gaspar’s Absence featured heavy phrasing, the gorgeous melodies blunted somewhat by abrupt endings. Fortunately, her voice was still bell-clear and beautiful and the new set (a stage strewn with mattresses) and choreography, was spellbinding. Each song unfolded with the clothes of a lost loved one spot-lit against the back curtain, and used the old mattresses to symbolise the place of private grievance for each mourner. The effect was to add a sensual intimacy to the first orchestral song cycle ever written, based on six Gautier poems.

Best of all, Gaspar’s voice only improved as the performance continued, as did her sense of movement around the stage. For the final song, L’île inconnu, she was the lost lover of Au Cimetière's mourner, positively floating around her mattress and assembling it into a fantasy ship with a gossamer sail, riding on cut-out waves under puppet-like clouds. Yes, these white cut-out shapes were incongruous with the rest of the set and dispelled the sense of wonder that had been built up - but ultimately this did not matter. What stayed with us was the consistency and emotion in Gaspar and Bemsch's voices, the outstanding acting on display and the tangeable sense of love and loss which characterised the action. Director Pedro Ribeiro succeeded in impressing upon his audience the beauty and pain of death, life and love and judging by this performance, most of these artists all have the potential to produce something special on the main stage.