Opera Holland Park proves, with this ambitious Verdi La forza del destino, that it can punch way above its weight. The secret? Better than average singers, better than average staging. This is a production that could be adapted for a bigger house and still stun.
It's not the easiest opera to stage. The plot verges on melodrama, so singers need to act well to convince. Much of the drama grows from context, too. All those peasants, soldiers, beggars, monks and priests give a wider dimension to the tragedy. The Vargas family of Calatrava are destroyed because they're obsessed by class and status. All around them, society is ripped apart by war and famine. Only the Church offers stability - or does it? Verdi shows the Church isn't a sanctuary.
It's a narrative that might call for widescreen excess. Opera Holland Park doesn't have such resources, but has found a solution in simplicity. In the Overture, the chorus stand before the audience, face to face. No action needed, the implication is obvious. We're invited to view the mass as individuals, each with their own private drama.
Such a panoramic opera could descend into chaos if badly put together. Fortunately, Alison Chitty is one of the most experienced designers in the country, who created Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House. Her set for La forza del destino focuses on the cast, not the scenery. Black backcloth to hide the remains of Holland Park House. Palace, town, battlefield, church, fundamentally the same thing. It's the human drama that counts.
Neat rows of chairs indicate a church. Splattered with red, hanging at awry angles, the chairs depict the chaos of war, order overturned. Minimal effects, maximum impact. These humble chairs function as a silent, secondary chorus, providing discreet support.
Singing, too, was of a higher order. Gweneth Ann Jeffers deserves far more attention than she gets in this country. Her voice is rich, with a wide range, and capable of great expressive depth. At the inn, she appears unobtrusively from a far corner, dressed as a man, but the moment she sings, she's unmistakable, singing of a higher order than anyone else. Her Pace, pace mio Dio is specially moving, which she phrases carefully, colouring subtle shifts of emotion. Singers of Jeffers' quality deserve to be polished, like gemstones. She needs good management. If she's properly pushed, it will pay off. She has the potential to be a star.
Although I've heard Mark Stone in recital and in smaller roles at the Royal Opera House, this was the first time I've heard him in a role as substantial as Don Carlo. He's even better as opera singer than recitalist, because he projects so well, and has commanding stage presence. Stone's Don Carlo is a natural aristocrat. You know immediately that he's not Pereda of Salamanca - no meek student would sing with such authority! An elegant voice, which Stone uses well to evoke the more driven aspects of the character. Don Carlo's so maddened with hate that he'll kill his own sister if it's the last thing he does.
Peter Auty is perhaps the most experienced of these principals, but is less convincing as Don Alvaro. A few strained notes are acceptable, but unlucky pacing meant that he ran dry towards the end of long passages.Of course, he's been wounded in Act 2 but this is theatre, not reality. He should be able to match if not outclass Don Carlo, since he's supposed to be such a hunk that Leonora chose him above her family, class and homeland.. Here, though, there wasn't much romantic chemistry.
Carole Wilson's Preciosilla was sassy and intelligent, not stock-gypsy slut. She made the part a parallel to Leonora, for both women are strong willed and passionate. When Wilson sings the fiery Rataplan, Rataplan, it feels like she's inciting the chorus to riot. They respond with such gusto that it feels like revolution. Mikhail Svetlov's Padre Guardiano doesn't seem too discomforted, but I suspect Verdi's sympathies lay with the crowd.
The lesser parts in OHP's La forza impressed, too. If only Graeme Broadbent's interesting Marquis wasn't killed off so soon. Aled Hall's Trabucco is racier than Don Alvaro, and Donald Maxwell's Fra Melitone mellow toned, for a bass baritone.
For a long opera, this didn't drag. The direction (Martin Duncan) was firm, though I wish the gunshot that felled the Marquis had been audible. Later gunshots were, so perhaps this was mechanical failure. As my friend observed, without this first gunshot, the whole premise of the opera doesn't make sense. Some very good moments, though. The procession emerges from the passageway among the audience. Cross held high, very dramatic. Just as everyone carries a burden in this opera and dies, so did Jesus.
Even more impressive is the way Duncan creates the transition between the merry scene with the vivandières and the scene with the starving peasants. It takes just minutes, for all the chorus do is discard their colourful outer robes. But it marks a major reversal of fortune, "the force of destiny".
Though the chorus in this opera is large, it's extremely well choreographed by Paul Kitson. The singers move in tightly defined groups, very precisely blocked. Many small vignettes, like the lovers, but nothing to dissipate from the main focus (unlike the ENO style described before) Complex interactions, but so well executed everything flows smoothly. At one point, Padre Guardiano's cloak almost gets snagged on some furniture, but a chorus member spots it and pulls it free so the singer doesn't trip. Quick thinking!
Opera Holland Park is a fun experience, though the performances don't generally overwhelm. This La Forza del destino was in a much higher league though, definitely way above average. So good, in fact, that it should be revived even in an established theatre. Sadler's Wells? The Barbican? It deserves to be heard.