The subtitle for this year's Jette Parker Young Artists' Summer Concert was 'A Journey Round the World', in token of the imaginatively chosen combination of extracts from operas that are set in seven countries (and one on board ship). But it's also salutary to note that the artists themselves represent ten different countries, and this lively concert of staged extracts was a celebration of how the Young Artists Programme brings together the cream of international talent.
After a slightly pallid account of Rossini's sunny overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia, five of the Young Artists (including Catriona Beveridge's sprightly continuo) got the evening off to a great start with the quartet from Act I of the same composer's Il turco in Italia. It was a clever choice, because it encapsulates the main situation of the entire opera: the flirtatious Fiorilla plays her husband Geronio, her lover Narciso and the handsome Turkish Pasha Selim off against one another in a scene of great hilarity. As Fiorilla, Kishani Jayasinghe's charming presentation and dextrous vocal fioriture evoked memories of Cecilia Bartoli's stunning performance in the same role at Covent Garden a few years ago. Krzysztof Szumanski was her equal vocally, showing both technical security and a beauty of sound that is ideal for the bel canto in the role of Geronio, and even if Haoyin Xue looked a little out of place, his voice was focused and well projected as Narciso. The latter two artists return for a special production of Donizetti's Rita in the Linbury Studio in October.
But the stand-out performance came from Robert Gleadow as the Turk. He leaves the programme this summer a fully rounded professional singer, here singing a role he was surely born to play. His stage presence and acting were amazingly mature, while he negotiated the coloratura with ease.
After the sheer entertainment value of the Rossini, the final duet between Belmonte and Konstanze from Mozart's Die Entführung was always going to pale by comparison. Nevertheless, a change of lighting and long ropes keeping the lovers apart were evocative of their prison cell. As Konstanze, Ana James - whom we interviewed last week - showed that she has the ideal floating quality in her voice for the Mozart repertoire and will be well suited to Pamina with Glyndebourne Touring Opera next year. Nikola Matisi? is not quite her equal in presentation but has a clean, lyrical voice. Considering that the duet comes at the end of the opera but they were singing it from cold here, the occasional technical blip from both singers hardly mattered.
Jette Parker principal Liora Grodnikaite then took to the stage for Charlotte's letter scene from Massenet's Werther. I felt that although she looked and acted the part to perfection, she was vocally underprojected, and the richness of tone that she has conjured up in many of her Covent Garden performances over the last few years was strangely lacking.
Ending the first half was the scena, terzetto e quartetto from Act II of Verdi's I due Foscari. An often dark and hugely underrated piece, it deserves to be staged more frequently. The rendition here certainly made a good case for the opera, though sadly Andrew Sritheran's dry tenor voice sounded ill at ease in Jacopo's music, nervous and sometimes out of tune. At the other end of the scale, soprano Marina Poplavskaya gave a simply riveting performance as Lucrezia, one which showed her affinity to Verdi's music. She is a natural stage animal, singing and acting with the utmost vigour, but it was her ability to nail the high Cs that wowed the crowd. She returns next season to play Elizabeth in Verdi's Don Carlo and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. On the basis of tonight's focused and giving performance, I can see why the company has placed its trust in her.
Gleadow returned as Loredano, again making an impact with his compelling presence, and former Young Artist Darren Jeffrey put in a solid appearance as the Doge.
After the interval came an excerpt from Act II of Britten's Billy Budd, in which Budd is sentenced to death and kills Claggart. Baritone Jacques Imbrailo, winner of this year's Cardiff Singer of the World Audience Prize, was mesmerising in the title role, even better (if possible) than his spellbinding performance of Owen Wingrave in April. Like Gleadow (who played Claggart tonight), he is already a complete artist - vocally secure and a vivid actor - and amazingly, he has another year left to go on the Young Artists Programme (read our interview with him here).
Sritheran suited the slightly airy music of Captain Vere more than he did the Verdi, though his tuning was still insecure, but Gleadow's Claggart was the perfect foil to Imbrailo's Budd, and Szumanski, Jeffrey and Matisi? returned to offer strong support in the smaller roles.
Matisi? also sang Fritz in the Cherry Duet from Mascagni's L'amico Fritz, along with Jayasinghe as Suzel. The pair made the most of the luscious score, which serves a rather tepid libretto, and by making use of the cherries ingeniously hidden in the flowers on either side of the stage, they brought the scene to life.
But the highlight of the night was the Act IV love duet from Pelléas et Mélisande, featuring Poplavskaya and Imbrailo as the lovers. Apart from the fact that Imbrailo used the score for much of the excerpt - probably as a result of his recent hectic schedule - this could have been a professional opera performance. Both singers showed the utmost sensitivity to the text while allowing their voices to fully indulge in Debussy's sensuous lines.
Ending the night was the finale of Delibes' Lakmé, starring James in the title role, Xue as Gérald and Szumanski as Nilakantha. James was on top of her form here and managed to convey the heroine's death rather convincingly.
My admiration goes out to the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and conductor Stephen Barlow for switching between so many different styles within the space of two hours. Barlow was a sensitive accompanist to the singers, ensuring they were always comfortable and never drowned out, and I found his interpretations of the Debussy, Britten and Delibes operas invigorating and insightful. Young Artist Andrew Griffiths took the baton for the Massenet and Mascagni pieces; perhaps nerves overtook him in the former, which was a little woolly texture-wise. But the Mascagni found him relaxed, bringing out many details of the composer's lush orchestral palette and engaging well with the singers.
The staging by Harry Fehr was truly inspired. Considering he had very little to play with apart from lighting changes, flowers, coffee cups and cherries, this was an accomplished and absorbing experience. The female artists' outfits were designed by Gavin Douglas, who was the winner of Fashion Fringe 2006, and all four of them looked distinctive and attractive in their specially-created costumes.
Overall, this was a very impressive end to a year that has seen the Young Artists making more of an impact than ever on the Royal Opera's productions. And without doubt, in Marina Poplavskaya, Robert Gleadow and Jacques Imbrailo, we were witnessing stars of the future.