Ten years of Opera Holland Park

Article by Ash Khandekar, 2006

Seizing the moment

Let us turn the clock back over the course of ten years and take a look at the state of opera in London as a new millennium approaches: in Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House is on the edge of an abyss as it prepares to embark on a major redevelopment of its theatre, introducing a period that will take Britain’s flagship opera company to the brink of bankruptcy, with bitter management disputes and dismal morale behind the scenes.  Over at English National Opera, the glory days of the 1980s, when the Coliseum became the height of fashion for the capital’s newly dubbed ‘yuppies’, are well and truly over as the company struggles to make ends meet and tries desperately to find an identity for itself at the turn of a new century.  The crisis mounts, and there is talk of merging London’s two main opera companies and selling the Coliseum.  There’s even the suggestion that there is too much opera in London – supposedly one of the world’s great cultural capitals, with a catchment area of around 12 million people.

As the situation becomes increasingly dire, the distinguished theatre director, Richard Eyre, is asked to prepare an independent report on the state of opera in London.  Published in 1998, the Eyre Report contains a damning account of financial mismanagement, rank snobbery and personal bickering.  At one particularly low ebb, a parliamentary select committee comes out with the following extraordinary suggestion: “we would prefer to see the [Royal Opera] House run by a philistine with the requisite financial acumen than by the succession of opera and ballet lovers who have brought a great and valuable institution to its knees.”

All in all, it’s not a pretty scene for opera in London.  But in the midst of all this turmoil at the heart of the metropolis, something rather remarkable is beginning to stir in a tranquil corner of Kensington.  We’re back in the summer of 1996 and, with little fanfare, the launch of Opera Holland Park is underway with a new production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball).  West London’s reign as the capital’s summer mecca for opera has made a modest start, and just a few miles away from operatic institutions which are in the throes of meltdown, one of the capital’s most outstanding artistic success stories is unfolding.

Launching a new opera company is a risky business, as impresario Raymond Gubbay discovered to his cost when his much-vaunted Savoy Opera folded in the middle of its very first season in 2004, in spite of its commercially-driven aim to be a so-called “people’s opera”, offering a diet of popular works on a daily basis in a major West End theatre.  In fact, putting on even a single opera involves a massive financial outlay, months of organisational nightmare, and no guarantee whatsoever of getting your back money at the end of it all.

Transfer this unpromising scenario from the comfort of a well-equipped theatre in the centre of the capital to a semi-outdoor venue in the middle of a park, giving space for up to six new productions a year, including some rare and adventurous repertoire and subject to all the vagaries of a typical British summer (plus a few screeching peacocks), and the idea of starting a new opera company in London starts looking positively suicidal.

Seen in this context, Opera Holland Park’s achievements over the past decade are all the more extraordinary.  Of course, all the great box-office draws have found a place here – La Traviata, La Bohème, The Marriage of Figaro, Tosca.  But if there is a prevailing spirit at Opera Holland Park, it is a willingness to explore, to push the boundaries just that bit further, without losing the plot entirely.  You’ve been stirred by the revolutionary fervour of Verdi’s operas, so why not give Umberto Giordano’s works a try?  Madama Butterfly is your favourite work, so let’s see what you make of Mascagni’s lush and orientalist Iris.  The extravagantly passionate Tosca may top the operatic diva’s stakes – but you’ll have to admit that Cilea’s tragic heroine, Adriana Lecouvreur, comes close to upstaging her.  There is an unfailing logic to the way little known repertoire is presented at Holland Park: every new avenue is reached by a familiar route.

If (thinking the unthinkable) Opera Holland Park were to shut up shop today, its ten-year legacy would still be a remarkable one, having helped to rescue the reputation of a whole raft of works that the opera establishment has tended to regard with a certain disdain.  These works form the verismo (or ‘true-to-life’) school of opera, taking their name from a group of late 19th-century writers in southern Italy who sought to reflect gritty realities of life in their art.  Puccini is the best-known exponent of these intense, often raw melodramas which became the mainstay of opera between the late 19th century into the turn of the 20th.  But his popular operas represent just a fraction of works that, with their blowsy narratives dripping with heart-on-sleeve emotion, have exercised the delicate sensibilities of the taste police up to the present day.  Indeed as far back as the 1930s, just six years after Puccini’s death, the British musicologist H C Colles penned a description of verismo composers in the Oxford History of Music that referred to them as “purveyors of operatic ‘shockers’ catering for the kind of taste which nowadays is provided far more satisfactorily by the film and the detective story.”

Through its vivid, strongly cast productions of rarities such as Iris, Adriana Lecouvreur, L’arlesiana, L’amico Fritz, La rondine and Andrea Chénier, Opera Holland Park has routinely challenged the validity of this view; and it seems appropriate that, with a sense of confidence that has been ten years in the making, OHP’s summer of 2006 takes its exploration of verismo into more rare but richly rewarding territory.

The 2006 season

Continuity has always been at the heart of programme planning at Opera Holland Park.  Themes and styles from one season tend to be carried forward and developed in the next.  In 2005, audiences were treated to Umberto Giordano’s 1896 masterpiece Andrea Chénier.  This year, the festival is launched with another opera by Giordano, this time his underrated Fédora, based (like Puccini’s Tosca) on a play by Victorien Sardou and premiered in 1898.  To me, Fédora seems a more fluent exercise in verismo than the rather unwieldy Andrea Chénier.  It may lack the big melodies and poetic sentiments that make its predecessor such a hit, but Fédora is an opera in which human emotions come very clearly into focus.  Indeed, the whole work unfolds as a succession of cinematic close-ups, centred around an exchange of letters which propels the twists and turns of the plot and leads to one of the most furious dénouements in opera.  In Fédora, Giordano gives us a vivid illustration of how music exposes the truth about the workings of the human heart, while words obfuscate and dissemble.  This is an opera in which the characters literally misread one another, culminating in a moment of pure operatic genius where Fédora and her lover Loris engage in a heated exchange to a Chopinesque piano accompaniment.

One of Opera Holland Park’s most impressive achievements over the past ten years has been the strength of its casting and its ability to showcase some truly great singing, both from freshly emerging young talent and from some unexpectedly distinguished quarters.  Among the highlights in recent seasons have been Rosalind Plowright in L’Arlesiana and Nelly Miriciou making her role debut as Norma.  The tradition continues this year, with the renowned Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny singing the title role of Fédora.  (Incidentally, this seems a good moment to note that Miriam Murphy, last year’s sensational Lady Macbeth at Holland Park, stepped into the shoes of an indisposed Violeta Urmana at Covent Garden in the same role earlier this year.  She’s going to be a name to be reckoned with, so remember where you heard her first…).  This year also sees the return to the festival of Opera Holland Park alumni who are making their mark on the international opera scene, including Mark Stone, Sean Ruane and Olafur Sigurdarson.

Meanwhile, in the same spirit of continuity, the concluding opera in this year’s festival, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, picks up a strand of programming from 2005, when the composer’s Eugene Onegin was staged at Holland Park.  Like Fédora, The Queen of Spades takes place among the aristocracy of St Petersburg and, as in Umberto Giordano’s opera, the characters in Tchaikovsky’s work are caught up in a tale of spiralling ambitions, passions and betrayals.  The protagonist, Herman, is one of opera’s more neurotic oddballs, infiltrating a social milieu to which he doesn’t belong, irredeemably in love with a woman engaged to someone else, and addicted to a pursuit that ruins him.  Herman is even more at odds with society than Eugene Onegin, and certainly more hopeless and self-destructive.  In Pushkin’s original short story, which forms the basis of the opera, the character is driven purely by callous greed; but Tchaikovsky paints a much more ambiguous and multilayered portrait of an anti-hero whose obsession with gambling destroys his capacity to love.

For all its supernatural overtones and its episodes of 18th-century pastiche, The Queen of Spades has many qualities in common with verismo opera, most of all perhaps in the figure of Herman who dominates every scene with his intense, passionate, almost oppressively brooding presence.  Tchaikovsky clearly enjoyed exploring this character beyond the stereotypical cad conceived by Pushkin, creating a portrait that is vivid, complex and, above all, alive: ‘It seems that Herman was not just a vehicle for me to write one kind of music or another,’ wrote Tchaikovsky, ‘but that he is a real, living and even likeable person…  I think that my warm feelings towards the hero of the opera have had a positive effect on the music.’

‘For richer for poorer…’

Herman’s trajectory through The Queen of Spades embodies many of the ‘big ideas’ that pervade this year’s operas in Holland Park, most especially in the way he is torn by the opposing forces of love and money.  He is a compulsive gambler who regards money as the key to happiness and, in his relentless pursuit of riches, he destroys the object of his affection as well as, ultimately, himself.

Money and love also come to a head in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, the second of this year’s operas at Holland Park.  Like Herman, Manon Lescaut is an ambiguous figure who tests our sympathies in everything she does, except perhaps at her pathetic end.  Manon’s motives throughout the opera are driven by her love of money – she makes a mercenary marriage to Geronte, Treasurer-General of Amiens, who keeps her in considerable luxury.  And she agrees to elope with her lover, Des Grieux, only when he wins a fortune at the gaming table.  In the end, though, Manon’s materialism proves to be her downfall: as she makes her adulterous escape from Geronte’s house, she just can’t resist spending time packing up her jewels and the delay proves fatal…

“Quanto? Il prezzo?”: “How much? Your price?” demands Tosca of her lust-crazed nemesis Scarpia in Puccini’s magnificent potboiler (staged, incidentally, by Opera Holland Park in 2003 with Christine Bunning in the title role).  It’s a question that Manon Lescaut would undoubtedly have thought very pertinent, and it crowns one of the most powerful confrontations in the verismo repertoire.  The corrupting influence of money is a common theme in many operatic tragedies (it goes a long way to explaining the spoilt-brattish personality of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, for instance).  But it seems that love is always for sale in opera, even when the subject is as light-hearted as Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow.  Indeed, the gleefully bereaved Hanna Glawari spells out her price very clearly – a dance is worth 10,000 francs and marriage is a valuable asset that comes with a bounty of 50 million francs with which to rescue the small sovereign state of Pontevedro from bankruptcy.  Through its myriad little deceptions and set-backs, love does eventually prevail in this Viennese charmer and everybody lives happily ever after (this is the only true comedy of the season); but there is still the lingering suspicion that, for all the romantic swooning as Hanna and her fiancé Danilo waltz off into the Pontevedrian sunset, the matter of bank balances will always be a hot topic of conversation in this marriage…

The old cliché (pace Lennon/McCartney) tells us that money can’t buy love; but then, how do we go about measuring the worth of this most elusive of emotions? It takes a genius of Mozart’s stature to suggest some plausible answers.  The 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this year could have posed a problem for a festival that has staked its reputation on staging operas from the 19th century.  It’s a birthday that’s impossible to ignore, but Holland Park’s choice of Mozart’s Così fan tutte as its contribution to the celebrations is inspired, since the opera so neatly encapsulates so many of the themes that recur throughout the 2006 season, not least in the question of how we evaluate our relationships.  (It’s also worth remembering, incidentally, that Mozart was at the forefront of Tchaikovsky’s mind as he wrote The Queen of Spades.  Originally set in the reign of Catherine the Great, who became Empress of Russia when Mozart was just six years old, the opera’s compositional style pays homage to a creative genius whom Tchaikovsky considered supreme: “At times, I thought I was living in the 18th century,” Tchaikovsky wrote, as he composed in Florence, “and that nothing existed beyond Mozart.”)

Così fan tutte’s plot unfolds as the result of a wager (if you’re a betting man, Holland Park is the place to be this summer, it seems).  It all seems like harmless fun at first as the old cynic Don Alfonso challenges Guglielmo and Ferrando to put their love for Fiordiligi and Dorabella to the test.  The two young idealists are confident that their lovers will be faithful, but the bet backfires horribly.  In Così, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte undertake a forensic analysis of the relationships between men and women, men and men, women and women, young and old.  The opera’s subtitle “The School for Lovers” says it all: the six protagonists undergo a surprisingly modern test of ethics and morality, and are all found to fall short of the mark.  As the plot is gradually uncovered, it becomes clear that there’s nowhere left to hide for these characters and that painful lessons have been learned about love.

Così fan tutte is another powerful example of the way opera puts our relationships and emotions under the microscope, allowing the most intimate scrutiny to take place.  Music, after all, is a window into the soul, and the great soaring melodic lines that you will hear at Holland Park this year are rarely simply decorative additions to a story – they are the means by which innermost feelings are laid bare.  So when Fiordiligi sings her heartrending “Per pietà…” we know that from the depth of her heart she is lost to Ferrando and that the game is up for her lover Guglielmo.  Mozart’s music unleashes a truth that cuts through all manner of disguises and deceptions – and this is what makes opera so powerful.

‘Why can’t a woman be like a man?’

Così fan tutte’s gender politics seem entirely appropriate for a Holland Park season in which all the operas (except in the case of Verdi’s Rigoletto) have titles with a feminine touch.  ‘Women are all like this!’ is the bitter axiom that gives Mozart’s work its title, and it will be interesting to see what Holland Park’s female director Annilese Miskimmon makes of this opera’s blatantly misogynistic account of the so-called fairer sex.  (The summer opera season promises a battle of the sexes on all sorts of counts, since down the road in Glyndebourne, Trevor Nunn will be directing his new production of Così fan tutte.  It says much for Holland Park’s chutzpah that the festival has the confidence to go head to head with its august rural counterpart.)

In general, a great deal of opera takes a pretty bleak view of relations between the sexes.  Guglielmo’s extraordinary tirade against women in Act II of Così fan tutte (‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti…’) is as nothing compared to the suave egotism of the Duke in Rigoletto.  Don’t be fooled by the catchy tune of “La donna è mobile” (A woman is fickle); for all its cheerful jauntiness, the Duke’s attitude to women is cynical and manipulative in the extreme.  For him, women are toys, to be casually seduced and discarded without a thought – woe betide any man who takes them seriously.  Rigoletto’s ill-fated daughter Gilda could indeed be described as ‘the feather in the wind’ that the Duke sings of in “La donna è mobile”, but only in as much as she is a fragile victim flitting between the Duke’s lascivious whims and her father’s crushing paranoia.

If Così confidently asserts that women are fickle and untrustworthy creatures, and Rigoletto paints women as playthings for men’s pleasure, then Merry Widow seems to beg the question, ‘What are women really like?’ Certainly the men in the opera are never able to fathom them – take for instance the duet that Danilo sings with Hanna at her party, which tells of a man who is painfully slow on the uptake when a woman attempts to accept his marriage proposal (the irony here, of course is that Danilo fails to recognise himself as the ‘dummer Reiter’ – the dumb rider – of the song).  In fact, of the women who play such a starring role during this opera season in Holland Park, perhaps only Hanna Glawari will depart the stage with her dignity reasonably intact.  It is the Merry Widow who, with the wisdom of experience, seems to give this year’s Opera Holland Park its season’s motto: “Ja, das Studium der Weiber ist schwer” – Yes, indeed! The study of women is hard.

Not that Opera Holland Park has ever opted for an easy life.  Far from sitting on its laurels, the festival has come up with another season of all-new productions that promise to be enlightening, challenging, moving and entertaining.  What Opera Holland Park has achieved in the last 10 years – and the achievement is quite remarkable – is to bring together a tranche of superb, often rarely seen repertoire that major companies would hardly dare to programme over a single, concentrated season; and time and again, to show that these operas are full of flashes of genius and, presented with fresh ideas and flare, really do speak to modern audiences.

Ash Khandekar is editor of Opera Now Magazine