Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Little Women the opera makes its UK debut at Opera Holland Park

22, 24, 28, 30 July, 3, 5 August 2022

Both composer and director ensure this operatic version of the novel possesses clarity.

Little Women

Harriet Eyley & Elizabeth Karani (Photo: Ali Wright)

Mark Adamo’s 1998 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic work may already be acclaimed as a modern classic in America, but this is the first occasion on which it has ever appeared in Britain. Experiencing it live for the first time, it is hard to know why it took nearly a quarter of a century for it to cross the pond, for it proves to be an intelligently crafted and frequently compelling affair. This is no mean achievement because adapting something with the complexity of a high ranking novel for the opera stage is fraught with danger. The tendencies are either to try to include too many plot points when an opera’s requirement to dwell on emotions at length requires simplification, or conversely to pare things down so much that the details and nuances that make the story and characters work in the first place are lost.

While those with absolutely no prior knowledge of the book or any of the film adaptations may struggle to keep up with all that is going on, by and large Adamo, who also composed the libretto, makes the story work well. He does so by ensuring that in the new medium he obeys the spirit, but not always the letter, of the original, and by delineating the characters of the four sisters extremely clearly. One could not say that the ending as it is rendered here is actually different to the original, but it is certainly more open ended because the scenario is cut off at a slightly earlier point. In this way, it circumvents the dissatisfaction that many people have expressed in the book’s ending, and feels more in tune with modern sensibilities. When the opera is written in, and for, our time, that is a good thing, especially when it is done in such a way that it does not undermine the point of the original.

The sound world that Adamo creates, here superbly performed by the City of London Sinfonia under the baton of Sian Edwards, is highly engaging. It is good to see the score employ a piano (in this instance, an electronic one) as much as it does because if in the Baroque era a harpsichord took a prominent role, why shouldn’t the keyboard instrument of choice today do so? There may admittedly be a few moments when it feels as if the score is kept on too much of an even keel. For example, it is hard not to draw parallels between the death of Beth and the demise of Mimi in La bohème as both see ‘silence’ precede the music cutting in once more to highlight the tragedy. However, Adamo’s here is nowhere near as dramatic as Puccini’s and, while it would be wrong to draw direct comparisons since the context and intention are entirely different, the episode is perhaps illustrative of the fact that some opportunities to really wrench our hearts are missed. Nevertheless, overall the music is moving and serves its purpose extremely well.

“…it proves to be an intelligently crafted and frequently compelling affair”

Little Women

Charlotte Badham & Harriet Eyley (Photo: Ali Wright)

Ella Marchment’s staging is highly effective at making the drama feel both accessible and nuanced. Madeleine Boyd’s set is applied on takis’ own for OHP’s double bill, Margot la Rouge and Le Villi, so that the wooden hut that features in those operas becomes the March house. It also has a picture frame around it while three smaller frames surround this central feature. These ‘belong’ to the sisters with a ‘double’ for each sister, who together make up the Quartet of Female Voices (Christine Byrne, Beth Moxon, Naomi Rogers and Daniella Sicari), inhabiting each. Which quartet member is doubling for which sister is indicated by the colour of their clothes, and highlighted in a routine in which each pair sits down at the same time. Clarity is marred just a little, however, by a trunk bearing Meg’s name spending much time in front of Amy’s frame. It becomes all too easy to think it is a label for that picture, thus confusing us as to which sister is which, when it is only coincidence that it is situated there.

The sisters in the frames occupy a variety of times and settings, with one space feeling very domestic and the sister in another sporting a chic modern dress. This reflects the character of each, but presumably also suggests who each sister might have been in another time and place. Beth’s double is dressed as a chivalric knight, which alludes, it would seem, to her noble character, and the fact that her premature death meant she was never far removed from childish pursuits and lives now perhaps in clouds and dreams. The doubles sometimes leave the frames and the original sisters occupy them, usually when highlighting a change in circumstance for one of them. Conversely, Jo delivers her ‘soliloquies’ as she pursues her writing in front of the orchestra so that, free from distractions, we really focus on what she is saying.

Charlotte Badham is an excellent Jo as her strong presence and perfect persona for the part is complemented by a clear and assertive mezzo-soprano that means we engage with every word she sings. Kitty Whately is a class act as Meg, Elizabeth Karani displays a highly accomplished soprano as Amy while Harriet Eyley reveals a beautifully sweet sound as befitting Beth’s virtuous character. Of the men, Frederick Jones as Laurie, Harry Thatcher as John Brooke and Benson Wilson as Friedrich Bhaer stand out, while from among the remainder of the cast Lucy Schaufer’s Cecilia March certainly leaves an impression.

• The matinee on 24 July is an Audio-described and Relaxed Performance.

• Scott Wilson conducts on 3 and 5 August.

• Opera Holland Park’s 2022 Season continues until 28 August. For full details of all events and tickets visit its website

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