Opera Holland Park, May-August 2014

Giacomo Puccini, La Fanciulla del West
Gioachino Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur
Benjamin Britten, The Turn of the Screw


La Fanciulla del West – or ‘The Girl’, as Puccini referred to it – was, like Madama Butterfly, based on a play by the American dramatist David Belas-co. Premièred at the Metropolitan Opera, New York on 10 December 1910, with a cast led by Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, it was a huge success. Despite this, it’s never held a secure place in the repertory, partly one suspects because it is the most through-composed of all Puccini’s operas. Except for the tenor’s plea on the scaffold near the end of the opera, there are no set-piece arias. In letters to his publisher Giulio Ricordi the composer referred to it as ‘a sec-ond Bohème, but more vigorous, more daring, and on an altogether larger scale.’ The daring lies in the movement away from the conventional musi-cal structures of Italian opera. Puccini’s interest in Debussy is evident from the whole tone chords and unresolved dissonances, and there is more than a hint of Wagnerism in the orchestral leitmotivs that delineate the central characters, and in the towering figure of Minnie who vocally and dramati-cally resembles a sort of Wild West Brünnhilde (there is, in fact, a deliber-ate echo of Die Walküre in Act 2).

Stephen Barlow’s new Opera Holland Park production transposed the ac-tion from 1850s California to 1950s Nevada. The gold-diggers became members of Camp Rock, a nuclear-testing site; Minnie, owner of the Golden Nugget Gambling Hall and magnificently costumed as a cowgirl, became a kind of Girl of the Atomic Bomb. Apart from the opportunity for Yannis Thavoris to produce attractive sets (a mountain panorama running across the length of the stage), the updating added nothing to the drama and made parts of the action unclear: why should a Mexican bandit be hanging around a nuclear-testing camp? More significantly, it detracted from Puc-cini’s distinctive taste for injecting his music with local idioms – a feature of his major operas whether they are set in America, Paris, Nagasaki or Peking. Fanciulla has a long first act, much of which is not directly related to the main plot and thus depends on the musical evocation of atmosphere. Barlow’s conceit required a non-musical prelude to establish his point, yet Puccini’s brief orchestral prelude (which launches several musical and dra-matic themes) was intended to evoke the vast Californian forest, and much of the opera draws on American folk material. The short section featuring the indigenous Americans Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle at the beginning of Act 2 is a straight transcription of an Indian melody, while Act 1 features an adaptation of the melancholy ‘Echoes from Home’ sung by the minstrel Jake Wallace (beautifully rendered here by Simon Wilding). Thankfully, once into the second act the updating proved superfluous enough, at least until the trite ending when instead of riding off into the sunset the lovers boarded a TWA flight. Puccini would not have wanted his finale to induce laughter, as it did here.

It’s easy to think of this opera as pure melodrama (by 1910 we are well into the silent movie era): a gun-toting heroine who plays cards with a mous-tachioed Sheriff for the life of a lover whom she eventually rescues while the noose is literally around his neck. In fact, Puccini’s musical architec-ture points very clearly to the theme of moral redemption, the leitmotiv for which is established in the Prelude. Minnie might have one of the grand-est entrances in all opera, firing her gun and breaking off a fight, but her opening scene moves quickly into a Bible reading, the message of which ‘there’s no sinner who can’t find a way or means of redemption’ – un-derlines her role as a moral guide in this all-male environment, preaching lessons to men who are all cheats, gamblers or imposters. The two rivals for Minnie’s love, the Sheriff Jack Rance and the bandit Rameerez (disguised as Dick Johnson), are both broken men who each unfold their moral bank-ruptcy to Minnie: Rance with a self-professed ‘gambler’s heart, embittered, warped and poisoned’, lives life as a game, accepting Minnie’s cheating at cards with a perverse gallantry. Johnson, who sees his vocation as a thief as his life’s destiny, is by contrast cleansed and redeemed by Minnie’s love, his final aria a passionate appeal to his accusers that Minnie believe he has moved on to a new path of redemption. Having cheated to win his life in Act 2, Minnie wins it in Act 3 through an appeal to the ‘suprema verita d’amore.’ Barlow’s production offered little scope for these distinctive mu-sical and dramatic themes to be conveyed.

Happily, the vocal and musical standards more than compensated for the production. In the treacherous role of Minnie, Susannah Glanville sang with scorching intensity, scaling the frequent vaults to the role’s exposed high notes with ease and power, yet also bringing tenderness to the more inti-mate moments. The tenor Jeff Gwaltney, with a voice a shade too small for the role of Johnson, nevertheless sang with feeling and delivered the final-act aria with convincing ardour. In the dramatically difficult role of Rance, Simon Thorpe was occasionally swamped by the climaxes but thankfully avoided painting the Sheriff as the traditional small-town Scarpia. In an opera with many important secondary roles, Neal Cooper as the bartender Nick was a piece of luxury casting. Conductor Stuart Stratford favoured slow tempi in the long first act but upped the tension superbly in the sec-ond and third, drawing some intensely dramatic playing from the City of London Sinfonia.

Oliver Platt’s updating of The Barber of Seville to nineteenth-century London was much easier to enjoy without reservation. Rossini’s perennial winner received a slick, colourful rendering, words and music blending beautifully with visual performance. Neil Irish’s set filled the whole length of the wide Holland Park stage. Dr. Bartolo’s house lay in a gas-lamped street which burst into morning life with Figaro’s ‘Largo al factotum’ su-perbly choreographed to the bustle of the market square. The house then opened up in the second scene to display the slightly squalid interior of Dr. Bartolo’s house with Rosina imprisoned in her room at the top. Everything moved in time with the shifting pace of Rossini’s music, and the vocal performances were excellent: Nicholas Lester was precise and musical as Figaro and Kitty Whatley a sparky Rosina. Nico Darmanin, a diminutive tenor with a diminutive voice, decorated Count Almaviva’s music elegant-ly. Best of all was Jonathan Veira’s marvellous Bartolo, singing and acting the buffo role with superb comic timing and not a hint of exaggeration.

In contrast to this unfussy triumph, Adriana Lecouvreur proved a disap-pointment. Cilea’s opera has always been a favourite among leading (often ageing) sopranos who relish the opportunity to play the role of a real pri-ma donna. The historical Adrienne Lecouvreur was an eighteenth-century Parisian actress whose fame brought her many suitors and bitter rivals, though none so bitter as to poison her with a casket of dead flowers. The plot of Cilea’s opera – complicated by cuts made during rehearsals for the 1902 premiere – is not easy to follow, and was rendered almost unintelli-gible by Martin Lloyd Evans’s new staging. For no clear reason the action was moved from the theatre and updated to a twentieth-century film set. Cameras, a table with coffee mugs, and a wardrobe rail stood alongside a portakabin from which Adriana made her (not so grand) entrance. If the updating made it impossible to make sense of the incidental political dra-ma which runs through the plot that hardly mattered, but the complicated thread of misplaced billet-doux, mistimed assignations, and misunderstood identities which explains the story was hard to unravel. The love triangle which flares up at the end of Act 2 between Adriana, Maurizio (who unbe-knownst to Adriana until this point is really the Count of Saxony) and the Princess de Bouillon was played out, confusingly, on a set featuring three separate rooms. There is a case to be made for Adriana Lecouvreur as a standard repertory piece, but this production did the work few favours. The one high point in the production was the small ballet interlude in Act 3, which featured outstanding dancers from the English National Ballet.

Cheryl Barker gave a commanding performance as Adriana. Although the tone of her voice has frayed, she is an experienced singer and can still spin out soft high notes beautifully. Her singing developed a beat in the intense final act aria, ‘Poveri fiori’, where Adriana sees in the faded violets she once gave to Maurizio an emblem of his faded love for her and unknow-ingly inhales poison, but there was a welcome absence of histrionics in


Cheryl Barker as Adriana


Elin Pritchard as Miss Jessel and Rosie Lomas as Flora in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ at Opera Holland Park. 

the melodramatic death scene. As Maurizio, Peter Auty made a genuine attempt to shape the love music with feeling, and if the tone was somewhat constricted in the opening aria his singing was more full-bodied later on, with some long and noble phrasing in the final scene. Simon Wilding and Robert Burt were characterful as the Prince de Bouillon and the Abbé, but Tiziana Carraro, with a rich bottom to her mezzo instrument but a thin, unsupported core, made a rather wild Princess. The best performance un-doubtedly came from Richard Burkhard, whose commanding voice was almost too imposing for the woebegone Michonnet, the stage manager who is himself in love with Adriana. His rich tone and incisive delivery of the text made the conversational moments with Adriana in Acts 1 and 4 more than usually interesting. The conductor, Manlio Benzi, was inclined to draw out the long orchestral lines so far that they lost dramatic tension and there were a number of occasions on opening night when conductor and singers were not quite attuned with one another.

Holland Park’s most adventurous and successful production of the year was undoubtedly The Turn of the Screw. Benjamin Britten first read Henry James’s novella in January 1933, writing in his diary that he considered it ‘glorious and eerie’ and ‘an incredible masterpiece’. His chamber opera for thirteen instruments, composed to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, was first performed in Venice in 1954 as part of the Festival of Contemporary Music. Annilese Miskimmon’s at times inspired rendering captured the es-sence of uncertainty and ambiguity that lies at the heart of James’s story. Are the pupils innocent or corrupted? Is the Governess a force of moral goodness battling against evil, or is she a dangerous neurotic whose posses-siveness leads her to be ‘cruel, horrible, hateful, nasty’ as accused by Flora? Is Miles’ death at the end of the opera a final release from his tormenter Peter Quint, or his tormenter the Governess?

In an ingenious attempt to capture the frame element of James’s story and ‘to combine and overlay the worlds of the two fathers of the opera’, as a programme note explained, Miskimmon used the Prologue to develop a parallel visual scene which ran as a thread through the ghost story itself. The setting for the Prologue was a school from the 1950s (the period of composition) and the stage filled only with chairs, tables, a blackboard, and a row of classroom cupboards at the back. The narrator (who introduces a story about a governess ‘written in faded ink’) is a science teacher in a white coat who leads a class of young boys in and out of a schoolroom. The story of the Governess and the events at Bly are played out on this set and the teacher and his pupils reappear in some of the interludes, acting as a mirror to the main story. The sense of pursuit established between the teacher and one of the boys in his care parallels the sense of pursuit in the governess’s protection of the children, hinting at an undercurrent of de-sire without imposing an unambiguous interpretation onto the main story. Directing this opera is a delicate balancing act but Miskimmon’s staging managed to be suggestive without being explicit. Even the moment when Quint climbed into Miles’s bath (fully clothed) left obscure the exact nature of his hold over the boy. The production also made excellent use of the per-formance space. The line of classroom cupboards at the back of the stage doubled (with clever lighting effects) as the train on which the Governess travels to her new position, and also provided opportunities for Quint to emerge across symbolic thresholds, invading the Governess’s physical and mental space.

The dramatic and visual aspects of the performance blended hauntingly with the gradual build-up of tension in the music. Structurally, the work is built on a single twelve-note theme established immediately after the prologue. The sixteen scenes are linked by musical variations on this theme, each one turning the screw of orchestral pressure before the explosion of brass in the final scene. It is also a work where conventional musical idioms jar against unexpected harmonic turns and atonality. This is especially evident in the disturbing nature of the children’s music which carries a subversive quality that repeatedly cuts through any supposed innocence: Flora’s sensuous lull-aby to her doll, the pair’s mocking rendering of the Benedictus, and their sinister delivery of the nursery rhymes set against deviant harmonics in the orchestra. These moments were chillingly conveyed by the singers in the Holland Park production. As Flora, Rosie Lomas managed both to look and to sound like a young girl, her voice carrying both purity and the necessary sinister edge. As Miles, the treble Dominic Lynch acted superbly. His final rounding on his tormenters – the defiant, ambiguous line ‘Peter Quint, you devil!’ – was delivered with tremendous spontaneity. If his voice was often swamped by the small orchestra this may have been owing to tiredness at the end of the run (I heard the last of six performances).

The dynamic balance between the singers was otherwise excellent. The vocal power was provided by Brenden Gunnell’s forceful but elegantly phrased Quint and Elin Pritchard’s appropriately dark-voiced, disturbing Miss Jessel. Robin Tritschler sang the prologue with clear tone and impec-cable diction while the two central female characters were outstanding. El-lie Laugharne skilfully conveyed the governess’s descent from conviction and reason to isolation and obsession. Her full, even voice, which lent sym-pathy to the character early on, gradually became more urgent and frenzied as her sense of control receded. Diana Montague (a late replacement) was vocally rich and dramatically dominant as the housekeeper Mrs Grose. Both singers articulated the text clearly, finding unusual expressiveness in the many conversational scenes. Steuart Bedford, a former colleague of Britten, conducted with an expert sense of shape and rhythm. Though an intimate opera, The Turn of the Screw demands a full staging to release its musical and dramatic power. Opera Holland Park’s foray into more modern repertoire was an unqualified success.

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