From Studio to Stage was the name of this year’s summer performance by young artists on the Jette Parker programme at the Royal Opera House. The programme includes not only singers but also conductors/répétiteurs, a pianist, a lighting designer and stage director Pedro Ribeiro, who surely wins the prize for best headshot. This being a two-year programme, casting was slanted to give most exposure to those in their first year. And do my eyes deceive me, or has Jette Parker decided to stop being the Chelsea FC of the opera world and nurture a little home-grown talent once in a while? Yes, there it is in black and white – one of the conductors, the lighting designer, the pianist and no less than two of the singers are Brits. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for preferential treatment for indigenous artists, but the complete lack of Brits on the programme in previous years was surely not a fair reflection of the distribution of talent, and it’s nice to see the balance redressed.

La Rondine: Butt Philip as Prunier, Bijelic as Lisette, Gaspar as Magda, Bemsch as Ruggero © ROH / Clive Barda
La Rondine: Butt Philip as Prunier, Bijelic as Lisette, Gaspar as Magda, Bemsch as Ruggero
© ROH / Clive Barda

The programme consisted of six separate scenes, to accommodate which Ribeiro came up with a set reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Cafe Müller. First we had Die Zauberflöte, a dumb show during the overture serving to give us the story so far before we began with Michel de Souza’s Papageno trying to sing despite his mouth being locked shut. Any baritone will tell you this piece is hard to project, and it was unkind to ask de Souza to open with this before he’d warmed up through singing the earlier parts of the opera. Fortunately, his warm and likeable voice got the chance to open out later, though the star of this section was undoubtedly David Butt Philip’s clear and unstrained Tamino, pretty much the perfect voice for the role. Dušica Bijelić as Pamina, unfortunately, sang with a squally and unfocused tone and frequent pitching problems. She also tended to drop out of character to tell the audience “this is my big moment” with an arm gesture, a habit she would do well to lose (though she might reasonably argue that it hasn’t done Angela Gheorghiu’s career any harm).

Next we had Anna Bolena, the scene between Enrico and Giovanna Seymour. The former was the always vocally excellent Jihoon Kim, though he perhaps needed a little more direction in how to convey Enrico’s turmoil as he comes to understand her true motivation. However, Justina Gringyte made an unpleasantly strident Giovanna, the sort of voice we’re told we have to accept in an Isolde or Brünnhilde as it needs to cut through Wagner’s orchestration – but not, surely, for Donizetti.

The first half ended on a high with the same composer’s L’elisir d’amore, the scene beginning with Nemorino’s “Una furtiva lagrima” before he’s joined by Adina. This is one of the most exposed tenor arias in the repertoire, and it shows how much confidence they have in Pablo Bemsch that they would put him in this position. Again I think it might have been kinder to let him sing himself in a little rather than throwing him in at the deep end, but he acquitted himself well, and it’s no insult to say that he was outshone by the glorious Adina of Susana Gaspar, fresh from Cardiff Singer of the World. She sang with a beauty and subtlety one can only hope the opera world doesn’t beat out of her.

The second half began with the Mozart aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te” – not from an opera, though one could easily imagine it slotting into, say, Don Giovanni. It was accompanied beautifully by pianist Helen Nicholas on stage, and although Hanna Hipp acted well the aria’s story of sadness at having to leave a loved one, her voice for my taste had a rather relentless vibrato.

Something about Bemsch’s Nemorino made me think he’d make an ideal Lensky, and sure enough here he was in that role as we got edited highlights of the first scene of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The scene however was stolen by Ashley Riches’ warm and rich Onegin, though it’s worth noting that the role of Olga, at least in the opening ensemble, seemed to suit Hipp better than the Mozart.

Finally we had Puccini’s La Rondine, the piece that the set had clearly been waiting for, led by the same excellent pairing of Bemsch and Gaspar as Ruggero and Magda. I’m not sure this suited Gaspar quite as well as the lighter Donizetti, but the two of them brought the show to a glorious climax.