Opera Holland Park, now sponsored by Investec Wealth & Investment and named Best Opera Company 2010 by The Sunday Times in its December Review of the Year, has been on something of a roll for several years, building a reputation for its enterprising approach to repertoire, its imaginative, energetic productions and its consistency in attracting and retaining a distinctive roster of singers, conductors and directors – from rising stars to established international names. With no less than six new productions, the 2011 season will again merit repeated visits to Kensington’s most elegant green space.
Since its launch in 1996, Opera Holland Park has successfully rehabilitated many works by Italian contemporaries of Puccini, such as Ciléa’s L’arlesiana and Adriana Lecouvreur, Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re and, in 2010, the sumptuous and decadent Francesca da Rimini by Zandonai.
This year, it is the turn of Catalani’s La Wally, which has never been professionally staged in London, and generally known only for the haunting aria ‘Ebben, ne andró lontano’ – long a favourite soprano showpiece – which achieved popular currency with Jean-Jacques Beineix’s stylish 1981 film, Diva, and, more recently, with its appearance on the soundtrack of A Single Man, starring Colin Firth. The last of this season’s operas, La Wally, which set in the Tyrol, outdoes Tosca for a spectacular soprano suicide: the eponymous heroine (legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini named one of his daughters after her) leaps to her death in a ravine escaping from an avalanche. Wally will be sung by British soprano Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, who in 2010 enjoyed a huge success at Holland Park in the challenging role of Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino. Directing is Martin Lloyd-Evans, whose 2007 OHP production of L’amore dei tre re asserted the dramatic power and cohesion of a long-neglected work, while the conductor of that production, Peter Robinson, will further prove the command of Italian style he has also shown at OHP in Andrea Chénier, La Gioconda and Rigoletto.
Late-Romantic Italian opera was not without a lighter side, and it can be seen in Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz which joins Puccini’s La rondine and La Wally to form a mini-festival within the 2011 season.
Mascagni, of course, is best known for the quintessential verismo opera, the blood-and-guts one-acter Cavalleria rusticana, but L’amico Fritz inhabits a different aesthetic world telling a gentle love story. First seen at Covent Garden in 1891, it takes place in temperate Alsace rather than sun-baked Sicily. Like La Wally, it has always been a ‘one-hit wonder’, though the complete opera was recorded by the starry teams of Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni in 1968 and Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in 2009: the touching, subtly melodic ‘Cherry Duet’ sees the tenor and soprano falling in love, even if they don’t quite know it yet. At Holland Park, fruity sweet nothings will be exchanged by young New Zealand soprano Anna Leese (whose vocal and scenic charisma transcended a supporting role in last year’s Francesca da Rimini) and, in his UK debut, dashing American tenor Eric Margiore. Following her moving OHP production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in 2008, Annilese Miskimmon directs, while conductor Stuart Stratford – who triumphed in 2010 with La forza del destino and Kát'a Kabanová in 2009 – takes on a less fateful challenge. OHP’s production of Mascagni’s Iris from 1997 and revived in 1998 is considered one of their greatest successes and this new production of L’amico Fritz will be the second that OHP have presented.
La rondine has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, not least through the advocacy of Angela Gheorghiu. Originally conceived as an operetta, it eventually became a mixture of charming comedy with a poignant, deeply moving ending; a kind of amalgam of Die Fledermaus with La traviata and La bohème, it contains some glorious, lilting melodic inspirations. Magda, the soaring soprano ‘swallow’ of the opera’s title, will be portrayed by Australian-born Kate Ladner, previously seen at Holland Park as Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, while her lover Ruggero is sung by British tenor Seán Ruane, who this year celebrates a decade of appearances with the company. After Hänsel und Gretel for OHP in 2009, conductor Peter Selwyn swaps flying witches for migrating metaphorical birds, and Tom Hawkes, whose many OHP productions have included both The Merry Widow and Adriana Lecouvreur, will bring an ideal blend of insights.
In 2009, Opera Holland Park achieved a coup by securing the services of Richard Bonynge – husband of the late Dame Joan Sutherland and a world expert on the bel canto operas of the early 19th century – to conduct Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. He returns in 2011 for the same composer’s cruel comedy of deception, Don Pasquale. After the high historic drama of her Queen Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux, soprano Majella Cullagh assumes the role of Norina, who dupes Don Pasquale (Donald Maxwell) into believing he has married her. Tenor Colin Lee, who has starred in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment at the Royal Opera House, plays her lover, Ernesto. The director is Stephen Barlow, who hit the headlines in 2008 with his OHP update of Tosca, and whose 2010 Don Giovanni brought a fresh, Wildean twist to Mozart’s much-probed dramma giocoso.
Mozart’s supreme comedy, Le nozze di Figaro, takes the 2011 firmly into the operatic mainstream, but some original thinking can be expected from the director Liam Steel, known for his work with his innovative physical theatre company Stan Won’t Dance and a number of stagings at London’s other major open-air theatre – Regent’s Park. The cast is led by the Countess Almaviva of Elizabeth Llewellyn, who recently enjoyed a major success as Mimì at English National Opera, the Susanna of Claire Meghnagi, Israel’s representative at Cardiff Singer of the World in 2009, the Count Almaviva of the imposing young British baritone George von Bergen, and the Figaro of Matthew Hargreaves, the consummate Leporello of OHP’s 2010 Don Giovanni. Also returning after a success at OHP last season is season is Matthew Willis, who in 2010 conducted Carmen.
Another essential work of the operatic repertoire, Rigoletto, stars Robert Poulton, who has formerly sung Giorgio Germont in La traviata for OHP and has taken the title role in Falstaff at Garsington Opera. His nemesis, the Duke of Mantua is sung by tenor Jaewoo Kim, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor last year at ENO, while his beloved daughter, Gilda, will be portrayed by Swedish soprano Julia Sporsén, a much-praised Micaëla in last year’s Carmen at OHP. Award-winning theatre director Lindsay Posner returns following his production of Roberto Devereux in 2009, while conductor Stuart Stratford returns after last year’s La forza del destino and, in previous years, Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, Iolanta, Jenůfa, and Kat’a Kabanova.