We began with the first act of Donizetti’s La favorite, a fairly flimsy love triangle which tangentially evokes the struggles between state and church in fourteen-century Spain during the Moorish invasions of that time. Fernand, a monk, forgoes his holy vows in order to pursue his, as yet unidentified, beloved - he turns out to be Léonor the ‘favourite’ mistress of the King of Castile Alfonso XI. In Act 1 we see Fernand, warned by his Father Superior Balthazar of the dangers which will ensue if his denies his sacred vocation and enters the ‘seas of life’, travel (blindfolded) to the island of Leon, where he is met by Léonor’s companion, Inès. A passionate reunion ensues: Fernand’s hopes are first dashed - when Léonor declares that they must never meet again - and then given fresh impetus, when he learns that she has given him a commission in the army.
Australian director Greg Eldridge, also a JPYA (the scheme supports stage directors, conductors, répétiteurs, music staff as well as singers) took a sensibly minimal, abstract approach - recesses and shadows to suggest monastic cloisters, a floaty white drape to evoke an island ambience - using the deep colours Edward Armitage’s lighting design and Natalia Stewart’s period costumes to suggest tempestuous emotions and unpredictable hazards. During the overture, the blood-red glow transmuted first to a cooler aquamarine, then dimmed to ominous black; the outcome of risks taken in the name of desire were clearly signposted by the encompassing darkness and by the lyric passion summoned from the Welsh National Opera Orchestra by conductor Paul Wingfield. The orchestral lines were vigorous and clearly defined, although perhaps Wingfield did give his forthright brass section a little too much of a free rein.
The chorus of monks processed earnestly (movement director, Jo Meredith) establishing a suitably devout context for Fernand’s rebellious outburst. And, as the wayward, strong-willed monk, tenor Luis Gomes demonstrated a fine, elegant line, with a sure sense of the structure of the lyrical phrases. At the top, and at points of heightened drama as when Fernand rejoices in the promotion which he hopes will elevate him nearer to his beloved’s social position, there was some tightness; but there was also much musicality and a convincing sense of character and dramatic engagement. South Korean bass Jihoon Kim - Jette Parker Principal Artist - was solemn and imperious as the naysaying Balthazar, using his large grave bass to convey the onerous weight of blessed duty and sacrifice; at times the tone was a little unfocused, but overall the performance was persuasive.
As Inès, Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan alternated warmth and refinement in her aria with the chorus, and the sound was appealing. Most impressive of all was Russian mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Karyazina whose full upper bloom and lower opulence were beguiling as Léonor.
As if a pairing of Donizetti and Mozart was not enough, Puccini was thrown in to the mix after the interval, when John Copley’s set for La bohème served as the stage for the first act of Così fan tutte. The cast might have been forgiven the odd identity crisis: one blink and Ashley’s Riches’ Don Alfonso might morph into Scarpia. But, Eldridge fashioned some neat comic touches, as when Ferrando and Guglielmo searched the wardrobes of Mimi and Marcello for their Albanian disguises. The overture was rather over-populated though, as chorus-members trundled through a vibrant café, distracting from the grace of the playing which conductor Michele Gamba coaxed in the pit. (Perhaps, as the Act 1 chorus was cut, this was just to give the monks and island belles from the first half something to do?)
Of the cast, Riches and Australian soprano Kiandra Howarth stood out. Riches has a strong stage present and excellent sense of wit, timing and gesture to add to his firm bass. Howarth didn’t quite have the evenness across the range required for a truly masterful ‘Come scoglio’ but at the top she shone and her sense of Mozartian idiom, and parody, was excellent.
Rachel Kelly has a lovely mezzo, sweet-toned and agile but very centred, which made Dorabella’s ‘Smanie implacabili’ a winning number, despite its mock-hysterics. Serbian soprano Dušica Bijelić took the role of Despina and acted engagingly although she did not always project with Mozartian clarity and lightness.
British tenor David Butt Philip (Ferrando) and Brazilian baritone Michel de Souza (Guglielmo) were a fine comic duo. Although he started his musical life as a baritone, Butt Philip sang without strain at the top and with elegance. De Souza was given Guglielmo’s ‘"Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo"’ to demonstrate his talents.
The roll call of JPYA alumni is impressive. And, with the announcement that Jihoon Kim will become a Principal Artist with the Royal Opera next season, and that five new participants (who were selected from almost 400 applicants drawn from 58 nations) will join the Programme from September 2014 - Australians Lauren Fagan (soprano), Samuel Johnson (baritone) and Samuel Sekker (tenor); British bass James Platt; bass-baritone Yuriy Yurchuk from the Ukraine - it is clear that the JPYA Programme continues to make a significant and highly valuable contribution to the development of the careers of young singers and opera professionals, and to the musical life of the capital and beyond.
La favorite: Inès, Anush Hovhannisyan; Léonor, Nadezhda Karyazina; Fernand, Luis Gomes;
Balthazar. Jihoon Kim.
Così fan tutte: Despina, Dušica Bijelić; Fiordiligi, Kiandra Howarth; Dorabella, Rachel Kelly; Ferrando, David Butt Philip; Guglielmo, Michel de Souza; Don Alfonso, Ashley Riches.
Stage director, Greg Eldridge; Conductor (La favorite) Paul Wingfield, (Così fan tutte) Michele Gamba, Welsh National Opera Orchestra; Continuo (Così fan tutte), David Syrus.