‘Little Women’ at Opera Holland Park 2022. Back stage, Harry Thatcher and Kitty Whately as John Brooke and Meg March. Front stage, Frederick Jones and Charlotte Badham as Laurie and Jo March.
Sisterly love has rarely been treated in opera, or in the arts in general, with the exception of Chekhov’s plays.
Mark Adamo, composer and librettist for Little Women, saw the psychological potential of this much-loved American classic, and in 1998 his opera got its first airing at the Houston Grand Opera. In his opera, filial love vies with romantic love, and into the mix Adamo introduces a new Proustian theme of the inexorable passage of time.
Change is painful to Jo, and there’s plenty of it in the March household where money is scarce. Sisters fall in love, marry or die tragically. Little by little, Jo, has to contemplate a life on her own.
In both book and opera, this is a coming of age work, but there is no doubt that the opera gives Louisa May Alcott’s book more gravitas. For it to work however, clever staging is key.
The set at Opera Holland Park went a long way into simplifying and shaping the narrative of the four sisters. Four giant frames on stage ‘framed’ the young women and their histories. We saw Jo the writer, Meg the skittish beauty, Amy the painter, and Beth the pianist. They drifted in and out of their period frames to interact with each other. Jo, the most independent sister, and principal character, had a desk on the front lip of the stage where she wrote, her oriental writing cap perched on her head.
Director, Ella Marchment, made maximum use of the stage, using the front and back lip of the stage to dramatise key moments of tension between the main protagonists. Jo looks upon Meg’s engagement to penniless tutor, John Brooke, from an opposite stage with fury and is further exasperated by Laurie, who chooses that same moment to profess his love for her (see header photograph). The contrasting vignettes worked well, Jo’s unhappiness and her sister’s joy. The same technique was used to show Jo’s estrangement from her spinster aunt. Both women face each other on opposite stages in a duet. Jo realises with horror that she will grow into her bitter, manipulative aunt if she doesn’t accept change and give love a try.
The singers formed a coherent ensemble. Charlotte Badham, as Jo, had the biggest job on her hands, singing throughout the entire opera with few breaks. I had seen her deliver a stunning Cherubino in OHP’S Young Artist Marriage of Figaro 2021 and knew she’d have all the stamina and comedic prowess to carry her through. She was particularly good when she was being ironic and disparaging of men! The libretto was clever, both witty and moving. Meanwhile, Adamo’s music was lyrical and reenforced the drama playing out on stage without drawing attention to itself. Adamo writes good vocals. All four sisters (Kitty Whately singing Meg, Harriet Eyley, Beth, Amy, Elizabeth Karani) were superb in their quartets. They were utterly believable in their closeness as they sang: ‘How often your sisters are your dearest friends.’ Laurie, Frederick Jones, had a strong, bright tenor and Harry Thatcher singing John Brooke, deftly incarnated Meg’s unimaginative but committed husband. This was an ensemble piece, each singer of the eleven-part line up (+ quartet of Female voices) essential to the whole.
Much has been said about newcomer Samoan baritone, Benson Wilson, winner of the 64th Kathleen Ferrier Award, who sang the part of Friedrich Bhaer, the man Jo will eventually take notice of. The caressing tones he employs singing ‘Kennst du das Land’ from Goethe’s poem, melt Jo’s hardened heart. The audience were transfixed by him on the night I attended, as I was, when I saw him sing Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte this year at ENO.
A memorable production – one which will appeal to wider audiences. Unfortunately the opera is off now, but worth looking out for in the future.