Sunday, June 14, 2015

Guest blogger Ed Beveridge has been at it again!

Season opening at opera Holland Park, June 2015

Il Trittico (Puccini) – Opera Holland Park, June 2nd 2015
Flight (Dove) – Opera Holland Park, June 6th 2015

Opera Holland Park could no longer be described as London’s best kept operatic secret, since its publicity machine is sophisticated and active, but unlike the other summer festivals in the UK, it is one of the most accessible. The performances happen on a temporary but robust stage and auditorium built in front of what remains of Holland House, in the middle of London's Holland Park. This summer the company presents five mainstage shows and one show for children. Repertoire is a mix of popular classics and collector’s items, mainly from the early 20th century Italian repertoire.

Suor Angelica at Opera Holland Park
Photo:  Robert Workman

This season is perhaps one of the most diverse yet. Later on we have Aida, Lakme and Montmezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re. The first two shows neatly top and tail the last century—Il Trittico had its premiere in 1918 in New York, and Flight at Glyndebourne 80 years later. Quite different pieces and brave choices both, and happily the company scored not one, but two great successes.

Il Trittico is a fearsomely demanding work even for the best resourced company. The combination of canny casting, strong direction and first class music making makes the evening way more than the sum of its considerable parts. Holland Park wisely opts for a traditional aesthetic—by which I do not mean unimaginative—and in so doing brings a complementary view of the pieces to the more interpretative productions London has seen in recent years. 

The productions are by Martin Lloyd-Evans (Il Tabarro) and Oliver Platt (Suor Angelica, plus revival director for Lloyd-Evans’ Gianni Schicchi). Designers at this venue must take account of a potentially awkward space with a wide, shallow stage and no fly space above. Neil Irish uses versatile common scenic elements, but there is no attempt to make links between the three operas which are not present.

Ironically Il Tabarro’s midnight Parisian skulduggery takes place during the lightest part of a sunny London evening. A stage-wide realistic barge with quayside arches behind thrusts the action right out towards the audience. (One of the pleasures of this festival is how close the orchestras and singers are to the listener.) It looks to be set around the time of its premiere – the “lovers” who appear at points look like a first world war soldier and his girlfriend - and the pervading colour is grey, appropriate for the characters’ impoverished existence on the waterways of France. In her first role of the evening Anne Sophie Duprels, a diva-in-residence at Holland Park (and elsewhere in the UK) was Giorgetta – a Georgette from this French soprano, surely? Attired in a plain housecoat, cardy and skirt, she shows vestiges of her former, carefree existence, alongside flashes of searing pain when her dead child is mentioned; her resentment for her husband Michele is as vivid as her passion for the stevedore Luigi (the imposing Jeff Gwaltney, returning after Fanciulla last year). And what a clever soprano she is – it’s a lyric voice, punching far above its weight in this repertoire, but making it work; now throaty, now gutsy, the money notes present with a healthy high C. Michele is Stephen Gadd, whose careworn, grizzled husband becomes something far more dangerous as the opera progresses, sung in a baritone which begins rather grey but grows in stature as the opera progress. Had Luigi’s feet not been visible from under his cloak, we could have had a more gripping finale, but it was a strong start to the evening nonetheless.

Suor Angelica was the shattering centrepiece of this production. Traditional? Sort of, although the setting took us to Ireland and the Magadalen Laundries. Precious little redemption to be had here, in a regime where the young “novices” are subjected to constant abuse and humiliation. It’s a neat and valid interpretation of the piece, with the young women ruled over by a Badessa and Suora Zelatrice with precious little grace and plenty of venom. Irish’s set, again grey but beautiful, created an eerie sense of time and place, and Platt’s direction had some telling details – Angelica’s forlorn reaction when a delivery boy tries to play ball with her but is taken away, for example. I’m not sure the cruelty of this setting is quite present in the score, but the sheer impact of the ending – no redemptive vision of Angelica’s child, but an agonizing death – hits home with terrible force. 

Anna Patalong Richard Burkhard in Gianni SchicchiPhoto:  Robert Workman
Duprels returned as Angelica. Her performance was gut-wrenching. She is a singer who gives and gives, tiring slightly towards the end but turning the dramatic screw til the last. Again it was the intelligence of her singing—such scrupulous dynamics—which impressed as much as the technique. Her Angelica was a spirited, strong woman, whose defiance as she looked her aunt in the eye made her final collapse all the more shocking. As her aunt, La Zia Principessa, Rosalind Plowright, a notable Suor Angelica in the past, returned to a stage where she is much loved. She was no stiff psychopath but a proud, conflicted woman, full of guilt and unable to bear Angelica’s distress when she finally reveals the terrible news of her son’s death. Some wayward intonation apart, she can still pack a vocal punch. There was a charming Genovieffa from Johane Ansel (she was also one of the lovers in Il Tabarro) and a fine supporting cast.

After being put through the emotional wringer of Angelica’s laundry (sorry), Gianni Schicchi was a rich dessert, although one with a grown up flavour (think bitter chocolate with a liberal slug of liquor). The production is set around wartime, judging by Rinuccio’s uniform. Again, broadly traditional, although wickedly well directed, treading a fine line between slapstick and subtlety, and doing so by and large successfully. Richard Burkhard’s Schicchi is oily, charming and uncommonly well sung, eschewing pantomime geniality in favour of sinister but irresistible charm. Anna Patalong’s golden-voiced Lauretta scores with “O mio Babbino Caro”, whilst James Edwards (back from his cameo in Il Tabarro) is appealing as Rinuccio. No weak links in the cast but special mention for Sarah Pring’s campily venomous Zita (she was also an appealing Frugola in Tabarro) and Aled Hall’s bright Gherardo.

This was a long evening which did not seem so. Pacing was one of the many virtues of Stuart Stratford’s expert conducting, creating lucid textures and near perfect ensemble in what must be a tricky acoustic. He is shortly to become Music Director at Scottish Opera but has remained loyal to Holland Park. 

A word, finally, about Flight, since in my previous post I promised a review. From the “boarding passes” and airport announcements that greeted the audience in the foyer, to the dazzling production, this was a gamble that paid off thanks to a fine musical performance and a superb cast which brought the piece leaping—flying?—off the page in a way I have rarely seen.

George von Bergen and Kitty Whately in Flight
Photo:  Financial Times
Stephen Barlow’s production is wonderful and dare I say even more enjoyable than the original by Richard Jones. Andrew Riley’s set was a sleek, aquamarine arch of airport with three elevator doors and a tower for the Controller. It was transformed by the lighting—disco purple for the conga of the Act 1 ensemble, deep blue for the night in Act 2. There were evocative projections of weather radar, storms and, appropriately, an aircraft climbing into the clouds for the finale. Against this backdrop Barlow judiciously used extras to create crowds at some key moments, full of priceless detail (I love that the passenger boarding a plane with skis in Act 1 returned on crutches in Act 3), which in turn emphasized the intimacy and loneliness in other scenes. There was farce (Bill and the Steward’s scene, “We’re so high!”, was a riot, and had the Steward scouring the trolley for snacks throughout Act 3); and searing tragedy—the Refugee’s chilling aria describing his journey, stowing away under an aircraft with his brother, was far more compelling than I remember it before.

I suspect this was at least in part the result of James Laing’s gloriously rich, penetrating, communicative counter tenor which gave Dove’s lines such immediacy. The Steward (George von Bergen) and Stewardess (Kitty Whately) were a scream, whilst Tina (Ellie Laugharne) and Bill (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) were an older couple than when the piece was premiered, and made it work; dead ringers for Linda and Richard in Duty Free , for which cultural reference I apologise if you are not from the UK or of a certain age. Victoria Simmonds—who created Pinocchio in Dove’s very different opera some years back—brought proper gravitas to Minskwoman’s aria, “Whose bag is this?”. The standouts, apart from Laing, were Lucy Schaufer’s warm Older Woman—her music theatre credentials meaning every tart one-liner came pinging across the footlights—and the young Jennifer France whose performance of The Controller was little short of sensational; in full command of the stratospheric lines and of her enigmatic, misanthropic character.

The score, under Brad Cohen, sounded wonderful and I was delighted that both Jonathan Dove and April de Angelis were present for a curtain call. A wonderful evening and another huge success for the company.

Opera Holland Park, the mouse that roared. You just keep on getting better.

There are a few performances of Il Trittico and Flight remaining plus new productions of Lakme (Delibes), Aida (Verdi) and L’amore dei tre Re (Montmezzi) –

Flight:  Set design by Andrew Riley
Photo:  Robert Workman

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