While Glyndebourne, Garsington and the Granges all offer an exceptional summer opera experience, there is one venue in the heart of London that also provides a taste of that bucolic bliss. It is Opera Holland Park where the tented auditorium is nestled amidst beautiful surroundings, and where the ruins of Holland House form a permanent backdrop to the stage. This haven of tranquillity is just a ten minute walk from High Street Kensington underground, but it is not only accessible in terms of transport. Since it is somewhere to which you devote the evening rather than the whole day, there is no need to book time off work and, while there is nothing to stop you from going to town, there are not the same strict dress codes as apply at the other venues.
It is not unusual for Holland Park to place an emphasis on Italian composers, especially since it has carved something of a niche in bringing to public attention works by composers whose own considerable talents were eclipsed by those of their contemporary, or near contemporary, Puccini. This year, however, four of its five operas (two of which are presented as a double bill) come from Italy, which in itself has ensured a nicely balanced season as works by Puccini and Verdi rub shoulders with rarities by Cilea and Wolf-Ferrari.
The season opens with Manon Lescaut (from 4 June) with director Karolina Sofulak and designer George Leigh having been awarded joint first place in the tenth European Opera prize. The competition saw creative teams from thirty-two countries submit concepts and designs for the opera to a panel of judges including Holland Park’s Director of Opera, James Clutton. From 214 anonymously submitted treatments by creative teams under the age of thirty-five, ten were selected for the semi-finals and four for the final hosted by Opera Europa in Zurich in June 2018. Sofulak and Leigh were selected to work their submission up into a full production at Holland Park, while the other winning team of Gerald Jones and Cécile Trémolières will present their own at the Staatsoper Mainz. Peter Robinson, who conducted Leoncavallo’s Zazà here in 2017, leads the City of London Sinfonia, Manon is played by Elizabeth Llewellyn who was outstanding as Magda in La rondine here two years ago, while another Holland Park regular Peter Auty sings Des Grieux.
It is very difficult to picture Un ballo in maschera (from 8 June) being anything other than very good, given the people involved with it. It is directed by Rodula Gaitanou, who was associate director to Martin Lloyd-Evans on L’amore dei tre Re here in 2015, before directing a spellbinding The Queen of Spades in 2016 and excellent La traviata twelve months ago. The conductor is Matthew Kofi Waldren, a former ENO Mackerras Fellow, whose many previous triumphs at Holland Park include La traviata, La rondine‚ La bohème‚ Lakmé‚ Il barbiere di Siviglia‚ Les pêcheurs de perles‚ Gianni Schicchi‚ Mascagni’s Zanetto and Rigoletto, while the designer is takis, whose work for the venue has covered La traviata, La rondine and Die Fledermaus. Similarly, Matteo Lippi (who shares the role of Gustavo with Adriano Graziani) was outstanding as Ruggero in La rondine in 2017; Anne Sophie Duprels (Amelia) has taken the title roles here in Mascagni’s Isabeau (2018), Leoncavallo’s Zazà (2017) and Suor Angelica (2015); George von Bergen (Anckarström) also proved strong in Isabeau; John Savournin (Horn) was an effective Leporello in Don Giovanni (2017), while the peerless Rosalind Plowright (Madame Arvidson) has already played the Princess in Suor Angelica and a particularly sanctimonious Countess in The Queen of Spades here.
The first ‘rarity’ of the season is Cilea’s L’arlesiana (from 20 July). While the composer’s most famous opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, recalls the elegance of Paris, this one evokes pastoral beauty as Federico languishes for the love of a woman from Arles, and is plunged into crisis when he learns that she has taken another lover. First performed in Milan in 1897, the opera is famous for establishing the career of Enrico Caruso and for the arias ‘È la solita storia del pastore’ (or ‘Lamento di Federico’), ‘Come due tizzi accesi’, ‘Esser madre è un inferno’ and (since 2011 when the publisher added this aria from the four-act version to the present score) ‘Una mattina’. The production enjoys the services of director Oliver Platt and conductor Dane Lam, who have been something of a dream partnership at Holland Park, having had notable successes with Così fan tutte (2018), Don Giovanni (2017) and La Cenerentola (2016). The cast also looks excellent since Samuel Sakker, who sings Federico, has played Alfredo at the Royal Opera House, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that he only knew on the morning of the performance in 2016 that he would be doing so. Yvonne Howard plays Rosa Mamai, a character who helped give voice to the figure of the mother in Italian opera, while Fflur Wyn, who sang Lakmé here in 2015, plays Vivetta.
The final main production to open (from 22 July) is a double bill comprising Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna and Iolanta. The former composer was last represented at Holland Park in 2013 with a splendid production of I gioielli della Madonna, though that seems quite different in nature to this farce of marital mistrust and modern manners, while the beautiful Romanticism of Iolanta should provide a perfect counterbalance. Takis is the designer for both productions, while Il segreto di Susanna is directed by John Wilkie, conducted by John Andrews and sees Clare Presland sing Countess Susanna, Richard Burkhard Count Gil and John Savournin Sante. Iolanta is directed by Olivia Fuchs and conducted by Sian Edwards while the cast includes Natalya Romaniw, David Butt Philip, Mikhail Svetlov, Grant Doyle, Ashley Riches, Charne Rochford, Barnaby Rea and Laura Woods. All of the operas over the season will be sung in their original language with English surtitles.
Beyond the main productions, there are several other events to look forward to including a performance of Dido and Aeneas presented by Juilliard415 and singers from Juilliard’s Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts on 9 June. Also, between 4 and 6 July The Royal Ballet School, which has a long association with Holland Park, will be performing a series of works by an eclectic mix of choreographers including Marius Petipa, Frederick Ashton and David Bintley. Then after the season proper has finished the venue gives itself over to several nights of film screenings from Luna Cinema. Finally, be sure to look out for the pre-show talks that occur for one performance of each opera at 5.45pm, as well as a host of other one-off events.
Opera Holland Park’s 2019 season runs from 4 June to 3 August (with the films then running from 7 to 9 August). For full details and tickets visit the Opera Holland Park website.