Yvonne Howard, Rosa Mamai and L’innocente sung by Samantha Price.
At a performance of L’Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park recently, I was bowled over by Yvonne Howard’s heart-breaking aria, Esser madre è un inferno (To be a mother is hell!). Howard as the long-suffering matriarch is superb. When she pleads for God to watch over her son, who has become enamoured with a woman of questionable repute, you really feel her pain.
The theme of unbridled, misguided passion in opera is a potent one and which still resonates with contemporary audiences, for man is flawed.
L’arlesiana was first performed in 1897 in Milan, over a century ago, but the psychological drama still plays out (within reason) in our homes, for isn’t it every mother’s nightmare to see her son give his heart away to someone who makes him unhappy, or happy for that matter! The rejection a mother experiences is today’s best kept secret, for to admit to such feelings is to imply that you have failed in some way. It is astonishing to think that in these supposedly enlightened times, these lousy emotions are still felt by women who work, are independent and who enjoy interests outside their children. That they should feel that age-old jealousy towards their son’s lover seems inconceivable, but trust me, they do! And then they get over it. In opera it’s different.
In L’arlesiana Rosa Mamai’s solution is to steer her son in the direction of a nice girl, Vivetta, from their Provencal village. Flur Wyn played this role to perfection with her clean as a whistle soprano voice. Her devoted love heals him momentarily but alas Federico cannot forget his scarlet-clad arlesienne.
She appeared on stage in the OHP production, a dream figure, with her back to us, writhing her curvaceous body and smoking provocatively, before disappearing out of a door, out of Federico’s life forever. Her inclusion was unnecessary I felt, for she holds more power over the audience unseen.
Sadly Rosa Mamai’s obsession with Federico, hoovers up any love she may have kept in reserve for her youngest boy, l’innocente, sung disarmingly well by Samantha Price. A simple soul, l’innocente feasts on tales of guiless goats and nasty wolves, all recounted by grandfather, Baldassare, played sympathetically by Keel Watson. These tender moments are our only musical respite from the drag and pull of straining violin strings powering the drama along.
Cilea’s opera is beautiful in parts but it is far from perfect. OHP’s production reigns in the melodrama as best it can. And yet when Mamai clasps her hands together in Act 3 and sings Esser madre è un inferno, I knew why I had come. If you click on the Youtube link of the Renata Tebaldi recording, you will have some idea of Yvonne Howard’s fantastic live performance.