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Michael Coveney: Jewels of the Madonna and Alice in Holland Park

I went down the rabbit hole with Alice in Wonderland yesterday afternoon and, later on, joined a seething crowd of Neapolitans as a jealous lover stole the Madonna's jewels from a passing religious procession.

And all of this happened in the middle of London, where Opera Holland Park brought their summer season to a rousing climax with a rare, and utterly compelling, production of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's sexy, fervid and highly wrought early 20th century melodrama, The Jewels of the Madonna, and gave the second matinee performance of composer Will Todd's specially commissioned new take on the Alice in Wonderland books.

Opera Holland Park
© RBKC Culture
The latter was staged by Martin Duncan on the park's Yucca Lawn, just behind the opera tent, and was a sit-down-stand-up-and promenade performance between four locations, ushered by singing Victorians and mixed up with mobile band members, colourful versions of the Mad Hatter, a bluesy old Caterpillar and the Red Queen; the nearest we've come, in fact, to Punchdrunk for Kids.

Alice was enchantingly sung by Fflur Wyn, and Maggie Gottlieb's libretto fashioned an entirely new story from Lewis Carroll. Alice and her family, living in Grimthorpe, visit a pet shop where a caged White Rabbit comes to life and whisks us off to school with Humpty Dumpty and then to the Caterpillar's mushroom patch.

At the Mad Hatter's tea party, the Red Queen - brilliantly done by Robert Burt in a livid red dress and make-up - threatens everyone with instant execution after a period of drudgery in a factory. But Alice stands up, helped by a White Knight, the Red Queen melts, and Alice returns (with the rabbit) safe and sound to the pet shop.

Will Todd's score, briskly delivered by conductor Stuart Stratford and his 12-strong orchestra, is an operatic melange of jazz, blues and jaunty chorus numbers, with a soaring lyrical solo for Alice that really takes some proper singing - and gets it, with interest, from Fflur Wyn.

I dare say there are lots of this sort of show going on around the country at the moment; I've never seen the much-vaunted promenade extravaganzas in Lancaster, for instance. But I could see Todd's Alice becoming a welcome fixture in London parks, not to mention Central Park in New York, where there is a Lewis Carroll statue with a suitable play area...

Robert Burt pops up again as a mafioso street reveller in The Jewels of the Madonna, along with three of the singing Victorians to swell the chorus. Not that it needed much more swelling: I've never seen so many people on the Holland Park stage at one go, nor as large an orchestra - the City of London Sinfonia - under Peter Robinson's baton.

And what a sound they all produce: lush, Wagnerian, suddenly vulgar and strident, then tumultuous and impassioned. I know next to nothing about Wolf-Ferrari whom I always imagined to be a dangerous, unpleasant character in a fast car. And, in a way, he was, a curious mixture of Italian lyricism and Teutonic metaphysical intensity, a continental hybrid whose reputation remains insecure and whose work, according to the excellent programme note by Tim Ashley, is undergoing an overdue process of re-evaluation.

Actually, the whole of the Opera Holland Park programme, edited by Robert Thicknesse, is full of good things, not least a surprising essay on Donizetti by the peerless Andrew Porter, great stuff on Bizet by George Hall and the conductor of Pearl Fishers, Matthew Waldren, and a delicious meditation on sex in foreign climes by Lucretia Stewart that partly explains why Lieutenant Pinkerton takes up with the geisha in Madam Butterfly.

The lead in The Jewels of the Madonna, the fiery and transcendental Neapolitan street child, Maliella, torn between her devoted half-brother Gennaro (Joel Montero) and the mafia head honcho Rafaele (Olafur Sigurdarson), is brilliantly sung by Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw, currently a member of the young artist programme at Houston Grand Opera.

I was hearing about the progress she is making there from Houston's managing director himself, Perryn Leech, who followed me down the rabbit hole in the afternoon and onto the bus during the Jewels.

Which bus is that, I hear you ask? This was a beautifully restored green 1966 Routemaster, the Rosebery - next stop, next week, at Glorious Goodwood - serving as an overflow bar and reception area for last night's guests at the opening, and great fun it was, too.

The upper level, open to the elements, was a breeze-blessed sanctuary on a hot and muggy evening, with the opera-goers jostling to one side and a game of park cricket playing out on the other. As a snapshot of an English summer in a fine London park, you couldn't devise, or imagine, one much better than that.