L’Amico Fritz, Mascagni (21 June); Don Pasquale, Donizetti (22 June); The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart (4 July) and La Rondine, Puccini (7 July)

Comedy in dramatic art is manifold and indefinable. For George Meredith the stroke of the great humourist was the lights of tragedy in his laughter. The first four of Opera Holland Park’s sextet of productions mined the comic spirit in contrasting ways. (Tragedy, in the form of dead daughters in sacks [Verdi’s Rigoletto], and avalanches and suicides on the edge of the Alps [Catalani’s La Wally], must wait for the final two productions of the season.) From the pastoral charms of L’Amico Fritz to the waltzing rhythms of La Rondine, which, though it ends with a lovers’ parting, is commonly classified as a lyric comedy, the intricacy and complexity of the form was evident. As if to prove the point, the plot of Don Pasquale – unequivocally humorous – was undercut with a specious and inauthentic death.

The company’s reputation for unearthing forgotten operas of the verismo period – that vague, unhappy term for the style of Italian opera that became dominant at the close of the nineteenth century – continues. In 2010 it was Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. This year it was the turn of Pietro Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz (1891). Posterity has dealt unkindly with this versatile, experimental composer, whose restless pursuit of new styles and forms failed to efface the blueprint of the infamous Cavalleria Rusticana. L’Amico Fritz premièred in Rome just eighteen months after the sensational success of Cavalleria. Seeking a contrast to the violent, murderous passions of his first opera, Mascagni settled on a text that, in its simplicity, would freely exhibit his music. Set in Alsace in the nineteenth century among neighbourly Jews and Protestants, it tells the story of awealthy bachelor who vows never to fall in love but is won over by the plain charms of Suzel, a farmer’s daughter. Though cursed with a libretto that Verdi considered the worst he had ever seen, the opera’s fame soon spread through Europe to Britain and America. Gustav Mahler, an admirer of Mascagni’s subtle harmonic language, conducted it in Hamburg and considered the work a decisive advance on Cavalleria.

L’Amico Fritz was regularly revived in the twentieth century, especially in Italy, and the ‘cherry duet’ of Act Two remains a favourite of the concert platform. The affecting Holland Park production made the strongest possible case for taking its imaginative, melodic charm seriously. Director Annilese Miskimmon updated the action to the 1950s with Fritz a property developer. The set of Act Two displays his show-house advertising ‘The Perfect Home for your Perfect Wife’. The split set of his offices in Act One, showing two rooms, allowed for effective juxtapositions, drawing out what subtle ironies exist in the text. In the role of Suzel was soprano Anna Leese who, earlier in the run, had found time to participate in the heats of the Cardiff Singer of the World. She then pre-empted the judges of that competition by announcing her non-selection for the final on Twitter – the prima donna enters the digital age. In the performance, however, Leese was both everything and nothing of a prima donna. With a gleaming, beautifully placed voice, she dominated the drama, delivering her opening aria without a trace of the coyness that can easily overlay a song about flowers ‘snatched from the sunshine’. Yet, vitally, there was also the necessary hint of seduction upon which the organic imagery of pastoral depends: in the prelude to the sensual cherry duet, when the hero and heroine experience their mutual attraction, the apparently innocent farmer’s daughter was clearly anticipating a flirtation.

As Fritz, the tenor Eric Margiore phrased smoothly and stylishly. His stamina was tested in the final act and his vocal technique taxed by the soft high ending to the cherry duet. Despite this, he acted compellingly. The voice and manner opened out into a wonderfully ardent phrase in the climactic scene when Fritz finally drops his feigned sobriety. The matchmaking Rabbi, David, was played with authority – and latent hostility in his scene with Suzel – by David Stephenson. Patricia Orr gave a sparky performance in the trouser-role of the gypsy Beppe. The conductor, Stuart Stratford, shaped the drama with sensitivity, ensuring that the dissonances, and chromatic and enharmonic turns that envelope the work were not over accentuated.

In 1942, three years before his death, the seventy-eight year-old Mascagni conducted a performance of his opera that was recorded via an Italian radio broadcast. In the intervening years the composer’s fortunes had shifted back and forth like the territory of Alsace itself. He experienced a quiet renaissance in the 1930s when he became musical director of La Scala, Milan, succeeding Arturo Toscanini who had resigned in opposition to the fascist regime. But the arrival of Giacomo Puccini, whose breakthrough opera Manon Lescaut appeared barely a year after L’Amico Fritz, had long since forestalled Mascagni’s brief moment at the peak of Italian opera. Ironic, therefore, that the Puccini opera on show at Holland Park this year was La Rondine (‘The Swallow’), a work that occupies a curious and quiet place in the composer’s oeuvre. In 1912 Puccini had been invited to write an opera in the Viennese style, a venture that was prevented by the outbreak of war. In 1917, however, he set the libretto that had been prepared for him to music of a slightly different style. The result was a strange half- marriage between La Boheme and La Traviata, where a sudden love affair between a young man and the mistress of a wealthy banker is brought to an end by the woman’s revelation of her past life as a courtesan (the echoes of Traviata are such that she even reads a letter from her lover’s parent). It is a slight thing. Puccini needed a more destructive musical and dramatic environment on which to hang the sexual neuroses that characterised his life; it is no coincidence that the subsequent Il Tabarro and the final, incomplete Turandot, with their adultery, murder and ritual executions, were more successful. This production was safe and sane, with elegant designs by Peter Rice – Magda’s salon in Act One was set out in Art Nouveau. The best of the music comes in the revelry of Act 2 when, in an undeniable echo of Bohème, the couples retreat to a Parisian bar; the beautiful closing quartet which captures the momentary buoyancy of love was the highlight of the evening. The orchestral playing under the baton of Peter Selwyn was excellent throughout.

In the role of Magda, Kate Ladner demonstrated a fine soprano voice – mobile, forward, with an agreeable edge in the top register. The opera’s one memorable number, ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretto’ was delivered powerfully and movingly. As Ruggero, the tenor Seán Ruane was robust in voice but with a slight whining overtone that lent itself better to anguish than love. He rose to the dramatic occasion superbly in the final act. The supporting cast was good, with Hal Cazalet as the poet Prunier displaying a light but convincingly Italianate tenor, and Hye-Youn Lee making much of the flirtatious maid, Lisette. As in Bohème, the humour of the piece falls mainly on this second couple, and the deft vocal acting of this pair justified the performance, if not the piece.

The tradition of comedy to which Don Pasquale belongs is altogether different. One of his final operas, it is a masterly swansong to the opera buffa tradition. The story is built on a stock comic situation. Don Pasquale seeks to marry off his nephew Ernesto into money. But Ernesto is in love with the penniless actress Norina and, to spite him, Pasquale decides to marry himself and produce a new heir. Dr. Malatesta, a double-crossing physician, decides to dupe Pasquale by orchestrating a sham marriage to his sister, who is really Norina in disguise. She makes the old man’s life a misery and, after various plots and counter-plots, Pasquale willingly gives her up to Ernesto. All ought to end happily, except, for some reason, in this production Pasquale keels over and dies on the final chords. The idea of comedy as happy resolution, and laughter as the vehicle for the defeat of egoism, was destroyed.

In every other sense, however, the production was faultless. Director Stephen Barlow transposed the story to a dilapidated 1950s English seaside town with Don Pasquale (who entered the stage on an invalid scooter) proprietor of ‘La Casa del Fish ‘n’ Chips’. The set design by Colin Richmond was all cheap plastic chairs and period street lights, leading down to a stony beach with deck chairs (the audience was presumably in the sea). The imaginative transformation worked splendidly because the evocation of period and setting was kept subordinate to the drama. Moments such as the notary drawing up the marriage document whilst consuming a cheap burger, and the meta-theatrical effect of Malatesta and Ernesto lounging on the deck chairs watching Norina’s shrewing of Pasquale unfold, were sufficient to add wry humour to the piece without swamping the irony and laughter that lie in the music itself.

Don Pasquale is a difficult role, requiring flexibility and buffo antics but also a full, ripe tone. The veteran Donald Maxwell knows how to convey drama and character through the voice, and his expert articulation of the text matched the humour of his physical expressions. The famous Act Three duet with Dr. Malatesta fizzed along, its 6/8 finish choreographed humorously to an impersonation of a Morecombe and Wise routine. As Malatesta, Richard Burkhard sang with smooth legato in a voice with considerable bite. The great performance nonetheless came from Colin Lee as the lovesick Ernesto. His world-class tenore di grazia fearlessly scaled this challenging role. The tone, while sweet, was capable of a ringing high Db at the climax of the Act One cabaletta and a beautifully controlled soft ending to the exposed final act serenade. The one vocal disappointment was Majella Cullagh, who made a considerable impact here in 2009 with her performance as Queen Elizabeth in Donizetti’s Roberto Deveraux. The voice is not so apt for a role requiring infinitely less grandeur and lacked precision and brilliance at the top. In her hands Norina became less minx and more tart with a heart – she delivered her Act One aria from a deck chair whilst slapping sun tan lotion on her cleavage. Richard Bonynge led with a cheerful rendition of the overture and his obvious delight in the score shone through in his permanent smile and the bright orchestral textures he drew from the players.

Don Pasquale stands alongside The Marriage of Figaro as one of the great comic operas. Holland Park’s production of Mozart’s perennial masterpiece was yet another bright feather in the company’s stylish cap. Set in a country house in the 1920s, the production was full of movement, with well-choreographed dance routines and much scurrying about the stage. The perennial country-house-opera problem of set change was imaginatively solved by having the servants play the furniture. Lamp shades were held aloft; stairs without legs were moved around when one of the main characters was poised to sit; the countess’s vanity mirror – broken to symbolise her broken love – was held up by a unwearied chorus member; Cherubino stepped into a large broken pane of glass to dramatise his descent from the upstairs window; and individual numbers were accompanied by multiple props to symbolise the drama – Dr. Bartolo’s aria by dancing books, Antonio the gardener by geraniums. The Director,

Liam Steel, was keen to highlight the sexual politics. For once the vanity and frailty of the characters’ motives were presented in such a way that made the final act, with its resolutions of the problems within marriage, more dramatically convincing than it can sometimes be. ‘I bar confusion’, says Hymen, the God of Marriage, at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The marriage of Figaro, coming at the end of Act Three, confuses rather than concludes Mozart’s opera, and this production helped us understand why.

Vocally it was the women who shone. Jane Harrington, a late replacement for Claire Meghnagi, proved a revelation, with bright, smiling tone and excellent diction. Sarah Bring was a fruity Marcellina, and Hannah Pedley, with a voice of considerable range and variation in colour, a Cherubino that, for once, sounded somewhat like a teenage boy. Best of all, however, was Elizabeth Llewellyn’s glorious Countess, her opulent voice used with shape and feeling. ‘Dove sono’ was unforgettable. As Figaro Matthew Hargreaves was impeded by a cold which weakened the passagework (the arias were well delivered). Lynton Black sang Dr. Bartolo’s aria whilst smoking a cigarette – a considerable achievement under the circumstances; George van Bergen played the Count as a stern, sexual predator; Andrew Glover made Don Basilio an unusually lively presence.

Opera Holland Park goes from strength to strength. The repertoire choices continue to be fresh, adventurous, and appropriate to the physical space; the productions imaginative but unfussy. Nothing will stop the peacocks and helicopters, and nothing seems able to induce the patrons to take their seats promptly. But nobody ought to mind with musical performances of this quality.

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