Is This The Future of Opera? Youthful Exuberance for Opera Holland Park.

 

12.jpgJack Holton (Anckarström) with Blaise Malaba (Ribbing) and Tom Mole (Horn).

 

Like Shakespearean actors and concert pianists, opera singers are outsiders in today’s entertainment world of self-made performers boasting one million subscribers on their Youtube channel.

Accessibility is of course a lovely idea and the internet has certainly provided an equal platform for aspirants. But there is one thing you can be sure of, even with the best will in the world, that you will never become an opera star just like that! Years of training and true grit might just get you over the first hurdle when you first set foot on the stage.

Knowing this, it is astonishing to think that there are still those willing to sacrifice the best of their youth to such a tough profession.

And yet they are, for opera is attracting more young blood and not always from the usual classical music schools. The Nadine Benjamins of this world are on the increase. Benjamin fought her way up from a Brixton council estate to become one of the UK’s most sought after lyrical sopranos. Of course it was a fight for her, even when she managed to find teachers, some of whom were most unhelpfully suggesting that she turn her efforts to jazz.

10Nadine Benjamin singing Amelia.

Still – there are now more job opportunities in opera as it opens up and is performed outside the established venues. The standard used to be middling to good outside ROH, Glynebourne, Garsington but all that has changed. Opera has evolved and what is more astounding, it is starting to get through to the young, thanks to people like Michael Volpe running Opera Holland Park, whose mission it has been to make opera accessible to all.

I was astonished to view a Twitter video recently of school children (10 years plus) giving a standing ovation to Un Ballo in Maschera at Holland Park Opera. The Ballo in question was a Young Artists’ performance of Verdi’s masterpiece. ‘Young artists’ in opera terms denotes singers in their mid to late 20s who are starting out in this careers.

Buoyed by this concept I was curious to see why the young audience had reacted so enthusiastically and made my way to the evening performance of Ballo the following day. The formula was thus: two leads sung by established singers, Nadine Benjamin in this production singing Amelia, and Adriano Graziani the ill-fated Swedish king, Gustavo. The rest of the troupe were youth artists. And of course all the above were supported by a strong OHP chorus and consistently brilliant City of London Sinfonia orchestra. The staging and set were gleaned from the original Ballo production at Holland Park the week before, which had been universally praised by the reviewers.

Never before have I heard Nadine Benjamin sing with such beauty and raw emotion. She was Amelia; married, loyal and gradually worn thin by her feelings for her husband’s employer.Wherever she was on stage she projected with passion and intelligence without overacting. Her centred approach gave more power to that astonishing voice of hers.

Adriano Graziani as Gustavo, excelled in the light-hearted arias in Act One, his bright tenor suiting the role. His body language was however awkward in the more intimate duets with Amelia. In Act III his solos in the penultimate scene were however intensely moving as he decides to let Amelia go to save her honour and marriage. Graziani was a generous support to his page, Oscar, sung by youth singer, Claire Lees. There was a nervous, tightness in Lees’s voice and body language to start (tough when you are singing coloratura) but with Graziani’s encouraging presence beside her, her life-enhancing, crystalline voice took off.

 

3Adriano Graziani (Gustavo) with Claire Lees (Oscar)

Meanwhile, Jack Holton embraced the onerous Anckarström role. At the matinée performance he had caused quite a stir on stage with his impressive stature, pony-tail and caressing baritone. He was almost too seductive for the role. It was only by clomping inelegantly around the stage did he succeed in making himself appear a little more prosaic. His young baritone voice was stretched a little in parts in the lower register, but in the main, it came across as rich and assured.

Other notable performances were Georgia Mae Bishop’s confident portrayal of Madame Arvidson the fortune teller. Conspirators, Ribbing, (Blaise Malaba), and Horn (Tom Mole) provided much needed black comedy to the piece especially in their mocking laughter trio with Anckarström.

Sam Oram finally, in the cameo role of Cristiano, didn’t quite get the opportunity to display his baritone credentials, but he is also someone scaling the operatic ladder.

All in all an exciting, highly ambitious project which came off brilliantly! Conductor, Sonia Ben-Santamaria, also from the young artist scheme, did a fine job of directing City of London Sinfonia in what is a fiendishly difficult opera to conduct with its fast tempos, quintets and intricate arrangements. Slight timing issues, when the French horns ran away with themselves for example, were just blips on an otherwise beautifully fluid interpretation of one of Verdi’s most ravishing of scores.

KH

Schools matinée curtain call of the year 2019: https://www.facebook.com/operahollandpark/videos/424337234958625/?q=Opera%20Holland%20Park&epa=SEARCH_BOX

My review of the adult performance of Ballo: https://artmuselondon.com/2019/06/20/verdis-ballo-in-maschera-a-revelation/

If you are interested in reading about the young artists at Opera Holland Park, here is the link: https://operahollandpark.com/news/introducing-the-opera-holland-park-young-artists-2019

    

Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. A Revelation.

 

400px-Verdi_and_Naples_censor-caricature_by_Delfico

Verdi and the Naples censor when preparing “Ballo”, 1857–58, caricature by Delfico

 

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, nearly didn’t see the light of day.

The problem lay in Italy’s troubled political situation and the opera’s libretto, based on the assassination of King Gustave III in 1793 during a masked ball. 

When Verdi was set to stage it in Naples in January 1858, the authorities were given more reason to feel jittery. Three Italian revolutionists, who saw Napoleon III as a hindrance to Italy’s unification, threw three bombs at the Emperor’s carriage in Paris. He was making his way to the opera with his wife. The bombs exploded, killing horses, staff. There were eight fatalities and a hundred were injured. Miraculously the Emperor and Empress escaped unharmed!

Back in Naples, the terrified censors asked Verdi to change his story-line, worried over the incendiary message the opera may be sending to the people. Verdi refused. The Neopolitans took to the streets, shouting ‘Viva Verdi.’ Verdi’s surname got caught up in the unification movement and became a code name for those who wanted Vittorio Emmanuele Re DItalia as King.

It wasn’t until February 1859 that Verdi agreed to change the name of the opera (it had taken on several different titles, Gustavo III and even Un Vendetta) to Un Ballo in Maschera, and for the narrative to be set as far away as Boston!

Nowadays the opera is back to its original Swedish setting. It is a political opera but with a love story thrown in. On a deeper level it is also, as the name suggests, an opera about secrecy and the suppression of truth.

Rodula Gaitanou, director of Holland Park Opera’s production, provided a sumptuous opening, drawing on the secrecy theme. It opens on a fencing school, the chorus and main singers, indistinguishable from each other, in their fencing apparel and visors. The set of wood panelling, stretching right  across the stage behind them, shields them from the outside world but also provides secret doors, through which those with things to hide, can disappear.

In the middle of the fencing class, a tightly-suited, young man with shapely thighs, leapt across the set, confidently wielding his foil. Oscar, King Gustavo’s page, is a wonderful incarnation and Alison Langer, bright-voiced and cheeky, sang him to perfection.

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But it is not only the staging, direction and cameo roles which impress, in this Holland Pk production. Matteo Lippi as King Gustavo never ceased to hold the audience’s attention on the night that I went, with his sympathetic portrayal of the pleasure-loving, decent monarch facing sentimental and political problems. His fine-phrased, focused singing seemed ideally suited to his role as chivalrous admirer to Amelia, his best friend’s wife. I also appreciated Lippe’s authentic rendering (he is Italian-born) of what seemed to be a simple folksong ‘Di’ tu se fedele/Tell me if the sea awaits me faithfully” and imagined the Italian audiences of Verdi’s time humming along to it.

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Anne-Sophie Duprels’s voice meanwhile, expressed all the torment of Amelia’s perilous standing. Married, and loving her husband’s best friend, from afar, she faced two years imprisonment in Verdi’s time, should she commit the unpardonable. Italian audiences would have been painfully aware of this fact.

Most heart-breaking and mournful however was her aria, ‘cello obbligato Morrò, ma prima in grazia, where she begs her husband, Anckaström, not to take her son away. I can still see her now, holding her baby to her breast, her face expressing loss, confusion, terror. Duprel’s goes to the very heart of this poor, defenceless woman.

Anckaström’s baritone voice, controlled, and also steely was excellent in Eri tu where he reveals his   contradictory emotions towards his wife, who he still loves.

I had never been to see Un Ballo in Maschera; perhaps I had been deterred by what I thought to be its innocuous title. The opera does have protracted scenes. In Act 1 Scene 2 for example, at the fortune teller’s. Rosalind Plowright singing Madame Arvidson provided a mesmerising performance however, her tall, crane-like figure occupying the stage, and her eerie contralto voice kept me on the edge of my seat. She had already made her mark in OHP’s Queen of Spades several years before. Once seen, never forgotten!

For three days now I have been reliving the highlights, the arias, duets, quintets. It is a very rich work musically and City of London Sinfonia orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton was seamless and totally in synch with the singers. I couldn’t detect any timing issues.

 This is a very slick production all round. Go! Only a few performances left!

KH

Un Ballo in Maschera is on for a few more dates : Friday 21st June, Tuesday 25th June, Thursday 27th June, Friday 28th June and Saturday 29th June.

https://operahollandpark.com/season-and-events/