The Royal Opera House is not usually associated with audience participation, but the Meet the Young Artists season is different. A group of young rising stars of opera and classical music performed a programme on Saturday evening that was chosen by the audience earlier that day.
The Juke Box is a showcase recital featuring favourite pieces from opera and even musical theatre. The transitions between the items are as slick as in a juke box but the evening is anything but mechanical. Seeing and hearing these lively young talents is a welcome reminder that opera is sung by, but also for, young people, too.
Helen Nicholas, an in-house ballet pianist, opens the recital with a perky rendition of Scarlatti’s Sonata in B Minor. Nicholas negotiates the numerous and demanding hand-crossings with athletic poise. The rest of the programme is devoted to the artists on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. The members of this scheme receive coaching on movement and stagecraft as well as music. This is in immediate evidence in Dušica Bijelić and Kiandra Howarth’s duet from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The distance between the pair changes with social fluidity to reflect the music and their mood. The artists momentarily transform the Linbury Studio Theatre’s imposing functional stage into a luxurious, intimate salon through their playful, coy performances alone, in what is the highlight of the first half.
Ashley Riches makes inventive use of the space as Rigoletto in Verdi’s opera of that name. He opens his duet, alone on a bare metallic balcony on a stairway by the stage, before he is joined on stage by the Jette Parker Principal, Jihoon Kim. Kim plays Sparafucile like a menacing Mafioso. His black suit and shirt allow him to appear suddenly before melting away into the black curtained background.
Bijelić returns as Suzel, alongside David Butt Philip’s Fritz in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz. Bijelić is the evening’s most assured artist. She shrugs, bites her lip and pouts on the edge of satire, before leaning against the grand piano and tucking her head under its raised lid as if it were a parasol. Bijelić’s black and red lace cocktail dress is a visual delight. The artists’ costumes as a whole are stunning enough to prevent the audience’s eyes from straying down to the lyrics in the programme too often. Philip exhibits a brooding emotional intensity and his solo dents Suzel’s smile convincingly. Bijelić’s range confirms her easy rapport with the audience. She is surely one to watch for the future.
The juke box is stocked with a broad emotional catalogue. Michele Gamba and Paul Wingfield have a lot of fun with Fauré and Messager’s ‘Souvenirs de Bayreuth’, a loving parody of Richard Wagner’s operas. The duo bounces dramatically at the piano like two gangsters in a car chase in a black and white film, taking care of their own soundtrack. Rachel Kelly provides some welcome darker emotion, movingly singing Strauss’s ‘Cäcilie’ with lightly clenched fists.
Kelly is underused, but appears once more in the finale: a Quintet from Bizet’s Carmen, with Nadezhda Karyazina, Luis Gomes, Michel de Souza and Anush Hovhannisyan. The five stand in a line and their glances move up and down like whispers. They reel off challenging harmonies like anecdotes at a dinner party. Karyazina sparkles, apart, as the outsider Carmen in a black dress. The rapport of these artists is as fine as that of the whole cast, whose musical and social camaraderie is as natural and infectious as half-muffled giggles shared by friends. It is this confident, youthful openness that makes these artists so professional.
The Juke Box played at the Royal Opera House on Saturday 19 October. For more information, see the Royal Opera House website.