Opera Holland Park’s double bill presents an intriguing pair of short operas by composers with seemingly little connection between them. But not only do they share themes of passion, hedonism, and violent jealousy, both works originated as entries in a regular competition organised by the Italian publishing firm, Sonzogno, to identify and encourage emerging operatic talent. Between the two works chronologically, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was one product of that competition, establishing the typical elements of the new genre of verismo opera. By tapping into that trend therefore, it is Delius’s Margot la Rouge (1902) which, surprisingly, more precisely fits that format than Puccini’s first opera Le Villi (1883, revised 1884, 1885 and subsequently) which is somewhat more in the vein of a gothic, supernatural myth (it is set in the German Black Forest, and the story turns on a visit Roberto is supposed to make to Mainz to claim an inheritance, though some of its features are not entirely foreign to the verismo format).
In Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production, Margot is seen, back in time during the prelude to Delius’s opera, with her father in a simple wooden hut in the countryside from which she runs away. Within one revolution of the stage – but a lapse of a number of years in dramatic time – that pointedly becomes the sordid bar in Paris (at around the period of the opera’s composition) from which she and other young women are pimped out: given this opera’s juxtaposition with Puccini here, it could be taken as simply a seedier version of La bohème’s Café Momus or the Polka saloon of La fanciulla del West. Within that sultry, claustrophobic environment, and a short duration (the opera less than an hour) a sizeable cast deftly jostle about and engage in some colourful banter (aptly conveyed in the coarse rendering of some of the dialogue in the English surtitles). When Sergeant Thibaut arrives, he recognises Margot as his former paramour ‘Marguerite’ (as Margot then was) and they revive their romance, inciting the murderous jealousy of her present lover, L’Artiste. In turn Margot stabs him, graphically enacted here with quite a spray of blood, underlining her epithet ‘la Rouge’ as a ginger-haired siren.
Anne Sophie Duprels sings the part with an assured lightness of voice, almost as though with detachment or indifference, rather than the more obvious lustre of a typical femme fatale, and similarly Samuel Sakker’s Thibault registers as more matter of fact and direct than a soaring romantic tenor lead in the first throes of love. Paul Carey Jones projects a hollow but sinister power as L’Artiste, calling to mind Wagner’s Hunding perhaps. David Woloszko eloquently conveys a quieter degree of menace as the pimp, Totor, whilst Sarah Minns and Laura Lolita Perešivana compellingly express their characters’ hard-nosed attitude as the two most prominent girls at the bar, Lili and Nini.
The connection with Le Villi in this production is potently made by showing exactly the same scene of father and daughter at the outset – in this case Guglielmo and Anna, as though setting out an alternative version of what might have happened to the young girl. Furthermore, Duprels reappears as Anna, and maintains a certain reticence that now speaks of her innocence as the victim of Roberto’s broken promise that he will return to her, after his journey to Mainz, instead of which he is lured away to a life of self-indulgence, causing Anna to die heartbroken. Peter Auty sustains notable heft for Roberto’s lyrical vocal lines, though his upper register comes under strain, even before Anna’s appearance as a ghost, coldly and calmly summoning the vengeful Villi, the female spirits who punish any man who has betrayed the love of a woman. A few abstractly realised trees on the set conjure the forest, around which six dancers in spectral white dresses stage a frenzied dance that brings Roberto to his death. Stephen Gadd demonstrates more authority than tenderness, as Anna’s father, at least drawing together the opera’s two short Acts convincingly, and his dual role as the speaking narrator who explains what has happened in the time between Roberto’s departure and return.
Francesco Cilluffo and the City of London Sinfonia give an often-searing account of the Puccini, not least in the final cataclysmic dance, despite the reduced orchestration of this performance, and the OHP Chorus is no less committed and emphatic. Delius’s score for Margot la Rouge is characteristic of his more famous orchestral compositions, with its fluid contrapuntal lines typically creating a harmonically shifting, and sensuous texture. In Cilluffo’s assured hand, it is far from a mere languid pastoral or idyll, but instead receives a more urgent pace that carries forward the tension of the drama. Individual instrumental lines are brought out, as though commenting upon the dialogue, to underline compassionately its gentler, human dimension. Taken together these operas form a fascinating and complementary pair, such juxtaposition being intelligently and sensitively handled by production and musicians alike.