If the BBC are inclined to boast that the Proms are the musical event of the summer in London, Opera Holland Park could surely claim to stand out in the capital as far as seasonal opera is concerned.
The annual OHP festival, with its unique tented performance area, has gone from strength to strength in recent years.
Supported for the sixth successive year by the City of London Sinfonia, it is clear that the music will once again be in safe hands. There’s also a bonus for 9-18 year olds in the form of 1,200 free tickets to be given away to those who apply.
Amongst the six operas on offer between June and August are masterpieces from Puccini and Verdi (La bohme and Un ballo in maschera), two ‘playful’ operas that seem perfectly suited to those long, balmy summer nights (Orpheus in the Underworld and Hnsel und Gretel), and two that are performed relatively rarely in Britain (Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux and Jancek’s Kt’a Kabanov).
The only obvious ‘pot-boiler’ is La bohme, opening on 27 June, which might seem to be ‘up against it’ given that the opera has featured recently at both the Royal Opera House (a revival of John Copley’s 1974 creation) and the Coliseum (Jonathan Miller’s brand new production). However, with Copley’s production feeling all too tired these days, and Miller’s being generally panned (albeit rather unfairly in my view) by the critics, one feels that if Aldo Di Toro, Sen Ruane, Grant Doyle and George von Bergen can perform up to scratch in Elaine Kidd’s (surely) sumptuous production, then they have the opportunity to trump both.
For me, the most interesting opera could be Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux (opening on 2 June) by virtue of the production team consisting of director, Lindsay Posner, and choreographer, Adam Cooper. This is the same team responsible for Carousel, currently running at the Savoy Theatre until 12 July, and if they can repeat the feat of combining the magic of the original with the latest innovations in staging and choreography then we are in for something very special indeed.
Two other operas have also appeared recently, or are about to appear, at the Royal Opera House. Hnsel und Gretel was staged there for the first time since 1937 last December, and its playful (if nonetheless dark) edge makes it ideal fare for OHP. I imagine that director, Stephen Barlow, will be making the most of this unique setting to bring this fairytale to life in all its macabre glory, although following the triumphs of Angelika Kirchschlager and Diana Damrau, and Alice Coote and Camilla Tilling (Casts A and B respectively at the ROH), Catherine Hopper and Joana Seara in the title roles certainly have hard acts to follow. The first performance is on 5 June. Similarly, Un ballo in maschera opens at the ROH on 26 June and at OHP on 21 July and it will be interesting to compare how the respective directors, Mario Martone and Martin Lloyd Evans, each approach one of Verdi’s most rich and dramatic operas.
Many readers may not be acquainted with Jancek’s Kt’a Kabanov, opening on 24 July, which is based on the Russian dramatist Ostrovsky’s tragedy, The Storm. It is, however, arguably his most heartfelt work. Composed in 1920, when Jancek was enjoying a level of international recognition that he had truly deserved long before then, it tells of Kt’a who, trapped in a loveless marriage, has an affair with Boris before the guilt of this relationship leads her to drown herself in the Volga. The parallels with Madama Butterfly and Eugene Onegin are clear enough, but it will be interesting to see how Olivia Fuchs’s production brings out the ‘semi-autobiographical’ elements in Jancek’s piece. When he wrote it, he too was trapped in a claustrophobic marriage and had found some consolation in Kamila Stsslov, a young married woman, whom he had first met in 1917. She also inspired his choice of subject matter although, happily, she did not suffer the same fate as Kt’a. In this production, Anne Sophie Duprels is Kt’a, Tom Randle plays Boris, whilst Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts takes on the role of the husband, Tichon.
Finally, Orpheus in the Underworld, which opens on 30 June with its famous can-can, is another opera that seems perfectly suited to Holland Park’s setting. In Tom Hawkes’ production, Benjamin Segal plays Orpheus but I’ll be keeping a special eye out for Juno played by Jill Pert, one of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s finest Katishas (from The Mikado) of the last generation. This production is incidentally the only one of the six to be sung in English; all the others will be performed in their original language with surtitles.
And so what should be prized most amidst this veritable feast? To me Roberto Devereux and Kt’a Kabanov feel the most obviously intriguing, but OHP is all about staging opera that is of a high quality and patently entertaining, and I can picture Hnsel und Gretel and Orpheus, in particular, allowing it to deliver in a way that only it can. Perhaps this is ultimately a year where it will pay to try a bit of everything, and happily ‘everything’ is certainly what’s on offer.
The Opera Holland Park Festival runs from 2 June to 15 August. More details can be found at www.ohp.rbkc.gov.uk Tickets can be booked online or by ringing the Opera Holland Park Box Office on 0845 230 9769.