Cavalleria rusticana at Holland Park
Cavalleria rusticana at Holland Park

Opera Holland Park, London

On the finest evening for an Opera Holland Park first night in years, the only umbrellas to be seen were on the stage.   The balmy sunshine, that had some members of the audience squinting as it broke through the canopy, helped set the scene for a programme of sultry, Southern Italian passion.

The City of London Sinfonia play with vigour all evening, under Stuart Stratford's baton, and ensure that Mascagni and Leoncavallo's scores lift you from your seat, as they pulse with verismo energy.  Stephen Barlow's Felliniesque Cavalleria rusticana is more like a good English Summer day than a no-holds-barred Sicilian bloodfest in the blinding light, though.  There's some sunshine but also a politeness and emotional reticence that undercuts Mascagni's blood-and-thunder tragedy.  

Peter Auty takes on the mighty task of both leads, a big sing for any tenor, and there are no signs of vocal weariness by the end of the evening but there's also a coolness and awkwardness to his physicality that makes it hard to believe this is someone (in either case) swept away by uncontrollable passion.

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers's Santuzza is similarly withheld, despite her usual richness and artistry, but that makes for an interesting interpretation of the dowdy, pent-up, stay-at-home woman who stands no chance against Hannah Pedley's sleek and shapely Lola.  Sarah Pring is a strongly felt Mamma Lucia.

Stephen Gadd also takes on double roles, with the murderous Alfio morphing into a not-visibly-deformed Tonio in I Pagliacci and his prologue to the second opera brings some of the strongest singing of the evening.

Barlow places the chorus well around the stage, painting some convincing pictures, and for Pagliacci the glum 1940s setting is transformed into the colourful 70s, where plastic reigns and a bank of blue crates dominate the action.  He gives the chorus plenty to do, so the scenes teem with detail but there's too much grimacing and stock Italian gestures to make it feel real rather than just well-drilled.

There are various visual references carried over between operas and, as a whole, it's a clever realisation, with the play within a play resembling some tacky sex comedy.  Julia Sporsen and Chang-Han Lim are excellent as the adulterous Nedda and her be-denimed lover and Andrew Glover is a lively Beppe.

This is a double bill that was once popular but seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years.  It's a shame because these are both fine works and they get OHP's 2013 season off to a fiery start.

- Simon Thomas