There was a time when tracking down operatic rarities took British enthusiasts off to amateur groups in church halls or small opera houses in Germany. Now the UK’s summer opera festivals offer a season of discovery every year.
Since its inception, London’s Opera Holland Park has been at the forefront. The second half of its season this year offers a double bill of rarities — Delius’s Margot la Rouge paired with Puccini’s Le Villi — and the first UK production of Mark Adamo’s Little Women.
The double bill worked well. Both short operas were written for the Concorso Sonzogno, the competition for young opera composers that ran from 1884 to 1906, though neither of them won. Strangely, the composers feel the wrong way round: the punchy, bloodthirsty drama of Margot la Rouge would surely have suited Puccini, while the supernatural tale of Le Villi, set in the forests of Germany, might have appealed to Delius, who was of German parentage.
This was not an evening of great singing at Opera Holland Park, but each half made its mark. Delius composed some worthwhile music for Margot la Rouge, most of it for the orchestra, which provides a warm cushion of sound, over which the singers had some difficulty projecting.
From the first notes, the Puccini was immediately more gripping, the melodies more memorable, the drama more urgent, however clumsily the story is handled. Alongside much that is derivative are passages of intense passion foreshadowing the mature Puccini that set the pulse racing. Anne Sophie Duprels gamely doubled the two heroines. Samuel Sakker and Peter Auty, both sounding stretched, were her two tenors. The City of London Sinfonia was rousingly conducted by Francesco Cilluffo and Martin Lloyd-Evans’s productions hit deftly to the heart of each opera. One came away with a good sense of what these two rarities are about.
The same cannot quite be said of Mark Adamo’s Little Women. Following a successful premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 1998, Little Women has become one of the most performed American operas of the past half century, clocking up more than 100 productions internationally.
Adamo made the skilful distillation of Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved novel himself. Sensibly not trying to fit in too much of the story, it gives space to Jo’s emotions, especially her sense of loss as the childhood idyll of the four sisters breaks up. This is where music is able to flower, contrasting the homely contentment of an apple-pie childhood — so American in tone (echoes of Bernstein and Sondheim) — with the bittersweet pain of memory. A decent cast, led by Charlotte Badham as Jo, with strong support from promising young tenor Frederick Jones as Laurie and Harry Thatcher as John Brooke, was conducted by Sian Edwards.
Unfortunately, at this relaxed Sunday matinee — a welcome Opera Holland Park innovation — ambient noise from the park on a very windy day made it difficult to hear the singers or concentrate on the performance. The UK music colleges should give Little Women a look. It would be ideal for them.
‘Margot la Rouge’/‘Le Villi’ to August 6; ‘Little Women’ to August 5, operahollandpark.com
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