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Who needs a claque like La Scala anyway? Opera Holland Park has its resident peacocks who deliver their own brand of instant criticism, greeting any off-note from the singers with a peremptory squawk.
I don’t know if peacocks have a good ear, but after 10 seasons of the company’s activities, the current brood certainly seem to know a thing or two about opera.
There was quite a cacophony during the opening performance of Verdi’s Nabucco on Tuesday – an unholy mess of a production – but peace was more or less restored the following night during a serious and thoroughly engrossing performance of Janácek’s Jenufa. One hit and one miss is not a bad start to the season.
Each year at Holland Park sees incremental improvements. This year the semi-outdoor theatre has been enhanced with better seating and a fine new overhead canopy, but why not cover in more of the sides to protect the audience from the chill wind of a typical English summer?
It was cold enough at Jenufa for windcheaters and gloves – though not even Eskimo clothing would have been protection against the biting emotions of this extraordinary drama.
Among 20th-century operas, there are few that feel as close to real life as Janácek’s first masterpiece. Human flesh is stripped to the bone, leaving the raw emotions on view like pulsing blood vessels or quivering nerve endings.
Olivia Fuchs’ production does only what it needs to, establishing the tensions of a close-knit village community and showing how each person’s actions play a part in the creation of a communal tragedy.
She is helped by having three lead singers who are equal to their roles. Tom Randle, as well as sounding comfortable in the awkwardly high music given to Laca, lays bare the inward struggle that drives a man to wound the woman he loves – a less titanic portrayal than Jon Vickers years ago at Covent Garden (he made Laca a violent, flawed creature, like a wounded animal) but no less believable.
As Jenufa, Anne Sophie Duprels captured the dichotomy of a normal young woman rendered hopelessly vulnerable by her situation, and Anne Mason made a formidable Kostelnicka, a touch stagey at times, but always the focal point of tension.
Although standards among the smaller parts were sometimes wobbly, there were other strengths, too: Aldo Di Toro sang well as the weak half-brother Steva, Nuala Willis hit the right earth-mother feel for Burya and conductor Stuart Stratford drew mostly detailed playing from the City of London Sinfonia. Sometimes he encouraged them to play too loudly for the singers, but the passion of Janácek’s music leapt off the page.
The production of Nabucco is best avoided. Director John Fulljames has set about the opera with enough ideas for three men. One of them sees Verdi’s biblical epic as a metaphor for the Holocaust.
Another wants to draw an analogy between the vivid colours of early Verdi and the coarse energy of a circus. A third knows a melodrama when he sees one and might as well have been standing in the wings shouting “More! More!”.
There was little anybody in the cast could do with this. Maria Pollicina’s strident Abigaille threw herself into the show with abandon, eyes rolling with hyperbole. Kristina Hammarström as Fenena tried standing apart and simply singing well.
After his entrance dressed as a lion on a scooter, anything David Wakeham’s Nabucco had to offer would have been an anticlimax, but his aria was one of the few pleasures of the evening, together with Brad Cohen’s stylish conducting. Otherwise the vote was squawks all round.
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