Every summer, the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists close the season with a concert of staged extracts from a variety of operas. This year, the concert united three portions of operas featuring Counts and Countesses with a French theme thrown in.
In theory, being given part of Tanya McCallin's handsome set for David McVicar's production of Le nozze di Figaro was a luxury that should have given the perfect backdrop to the Young Artists' performance of Act IV of the same opera.
But I was rather dismayed to find that director Vera Petrova had banished the trees and plants and instead brought in a long table with an abandoned feast on top; the decision to use a mixture of period and modern costumes was also unnecessarily incongruous, too, in my opinion. Petrova contrived some amusing stage business, the most memorable part of which was the Count's handling of first a wine bottle and then a candelabra with which to hit Figaro (whom the Count believes is seducing the Countess), but on the whole I felt that last year's much simpler staging, with the singers performing in a space in front of the orchestra (who were onstage), was much more effective.
Musically, too, the Figaro act was the low point. Co-ordination between stage and pit was not always ideal, tempi were extreme and the varied colours of Mozart's orchestration were overlooked in Andrew Griffiths' sadly nervous reading. Jacques Imbrailo gave by far the most polished performance as the Count, with Kishani Jayasinghe also acquitting herself well as Susanna. Monika-Evelin Liiv's full-toned Cherubino also shone, as did Ji-Min Park as Don Basilio. Still, the professionalism and experience of ROH regular Elizabeth Sikora as Marcellina was all too apparent by the side of Krzysztof Szumanski and Anita Watson, both of them slightly overparted as Figaro and the Countess respectively.
Things improved vastly with steadier conducting and a more focussed direction in the second half. First we enjoyed the fugue, duet and octet from Richard Strauss' Capriccio, conducted and played with verve by Richard Farnes and the Orchestra of Opera North. Thomas Guthrie's staging worked very well here, in spite of the continued clashes of period in the costumes and designs: this is an ensemble piece in which the relative importance of words and music in opera is argued passionately, and the Young Artists threw themselves into it with aplomb. Again, Imbrailo stole the scene as Olivier the poet, but notable too was Haoyin Xue as the Italian tenor. Watson and Liiv seemed far more at home in this repertoire than in the Mozart, as did Pumeza Matshikiza, whose erratic performance of Barbarina's aria in Figaro was completely forgotten in a far more poised rendition of Madeleine's music in Capriccio. Praise, too, for Kostas Smorginas as the Count, Vuyani Mlinde as La Roche and a strong return from the very promising Ji-Min Park as Flamand.
The afternoon closed with the Gran pezzo concertato and the German, Polish, Spanish and English national anthems from Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims (a much overlooked piece written for the coronation of Charles X in 1825). Performed more or less as in a concert, with the singers lined up in front of a basic curtain, it was the perfect finale for the event, allowing the Young Artists to shine. In particular, Szumanski came into his own here as the Barone di Trombonok, who acts as Master of Ceremonies for the scene. Jayasinghe, Watson, Liiv and Imbrailo were also very fine once more, and with a rip-roaring accompaniment from the Opera North orchestra, the Rossinian showcase left the audience with far more of a high than it had experienced in the first part of the programme.