Opera Holland Park has pulled off the near impossible in putting on a season of opera and song recitals after close to 700 days of enforced silence.
Thrilled to secure “side seats” for two sold out shows of ‘Traviata’ and ‘Marriage of Figaro’, I made my way (as I have done for 15 years) for two consecutive evenings to see probably the world’s most popular operas by Verdi and Mozart.
So what is opera like even while we remain gripped in a pandemic?
Mercifully the auditorium at OHP and performance space has always been light and airy. But gone was the fixed and raked seating. Instead, beneath the sweeping, elegant canopy was a sea of chairs and little tables: an assortment of old furniture – a good proportion of which, had been sourced from the props department of theatres from all over the country. Four hundred chairs – less than half of the usual audience. There is no doubt that this socially distanced seating did create a more intimate, homely setting.
First, La Traviata. Enveloped fetchingly in her ivory and black satin dresses, complete with ostrich plume, Lauren Fagan was the perfect looking and sounding Violetta. From wherever Fagan sang (the stage is very wide at OHP), her beautifully expressive and generous soprano, came through. She deftly made the switch to consumptive courtesan, conveying both fragility in her voice and body in Act III, when in her final death throes, she reunites with lover Alfredo. As the couple were so close to the audience (the stage was designed like a flattened doughnut, the orchestra pit in the middle of it and the singers allowed to circle around it) ,the intimate setting enhanced the impact of the poignant scene. Matteo Desole was convincing as the naive, awkward lover and I always really enjoy Desole’s refined, Italianate bright tenor. Stephen Gadd, Alfredo’s father, was tremendous in his bourgeois stiffness, and immensely touching, when this persona evaporated and became more fatherly and understanding. ‘Die Provenza il mar’, as he tries to lure Alfredo back to Provence, was superb, as were his vital scenes with Violetta.
Marriage of Figaro was at first a slow burn – it’s that sort of opera; full of high jinks, the comedy in the first few acts taking the upper hand and Mozart’s musical light and shade seeping through in stages. In the first few scenes, I had trouble hearing Ros Ramgobin singing Figaro as he seemed marooned on the left stage, and I was seated in a side seat on the right. That said, these projection issues resolved themselves later for me and I had a feeling that as the breeze ceased, the sound stayed in the auditorium as night fell around the canopy. Ramgobin’s solo impressed as new, suffering husband. So did Julian Van Mellaert’s Count Almaviva. His character shaped up beautifully from the beginning of Act III where his brooding sexual predator and jealous persona was artfully conveyed in his sinister baritone. The role of no-nonsense Susannah was intelligently played by Elizabeth Karani, her assured soprano giving way to an exquisite tender solo in Act IV.
Although this was a brilliant ensemble work, the queen of the night was clearly Nardus Williams as Countess. Williams, despite her youth, still brought gravitas and acute sensitivity to the role of wronged spouse. A few years ago, I was bowled over by her Micaëla in ENO’s Carmen. Again with Figaro, her soft, luminous soprano was completely disarming, her sad soliloquys spellbindingly beautiful.
City of London Sinfonia put in a great performance on both nights. Mozart’s score, under George Jackson’s baton, was particularly seductive and illuminating.
This OHP production is highly recommended. Ticket returns are available if you sign up for an alert system, but I strongly urge you to try or call box office direct. On the evening I was present, filming was taking place of Marriage of Figaro so here’s hoping that plenty of others have access to this remarkable production.
‘La Traviata’ and ‘Marriage of Figaro’ running at Opera Holland Park until 28th June. Box office for returns or £30 side tickets. Box Office 0300 999 1000 operahollandpark.com
Image: Marriage of Figaro, Opera Holland Park. Nardus Williams. Photo Ali Wright