Twenty-five up

Article by Michael Volpe

My memories of twenty-four seasons at this festival tend to muddle together; faces, names, dates and the meandering chronology blurs into a confusing whole but the events on stage remain clear in the mind, most with crystal, luminous clarity and all in some fashion waypoints in our journey, symbolising not only the brilliance of their creation but a moment of importance to our history. It is fair to say that not always was there a contemporaneous awareness that they should turn out to be so important, but without exception they were special.

For this article, I have remembered those that had a deep effect on me as an audience member and as such my first recollection is as a consumer, believing that if these productions could so profoundly register with me, their impact would almost certainly be replicated for our patrons.

The list is in no particular order because even though I thought it might be possible to rank them from one to ten, no sooner had I done so, the order would change again. So it is perhaps best to read this piece with the consideration that each is as unique and essential as the next.

Tosca (2008)

At 7am of the morning after the first night of this Stephen Barlow production, set in 1968 Rome and the political ferment of that time, I received an email from a patron who said; “not only is this the worst production of Tosca I have ever seen but it is the worst production of any opera I have ever seen”. It was an inauspicious start to the day but reassurance soon followed as critical acclaim was poured upon this brilliant piece of work. Amanda Echalaz blazed as the heroine and the setting brought new meaning and enlightenment to the piece. Stephen Barlow’s vision and subtle direction created for the first time in my experience a true and glowing confirmation of what Puccini really thought about the relationship between Tosca and Scarpia – Nicholas Garret as the police chief lent the idea credibility. We took it for a successful run to Richmond Theatre thereafter and it remains a definitive Tosca.

Iris (1997 & 1998)

Our first foray into the late Italian repertoire remains the most sumptuous production we ever produced thanks to the support and involvement of couturiers Charles and Patricia Lester. The fashion media flocked around alongside the music world, Liberty devoting their windows to the costumes. But Mascagni’s monumentally scored and exquisitely beautiful blockbuster was no walk in the park and was only beaten for orchestral and choral forces by last season’s I gioielli della Madonna. On the first night, the rain had fallen in torrents for the entire day and the oppressive heat turned London into an Indian monsoon. The battle to make the theatre safe was on but by 7pm, the rain stopped; the air was heavy, still and infused with magic. Iris was so popular that we revived it in the following season and it is impossible to forget the impact of the opening ‘Hymn to the Sun’. Iris was a glorious event and a seminal moment in our development.

L’amore dei tre Re (2007)

Those of our patrons who have been around a while will have heard James and I discussing this work for a long time before it eventually appeared on stage (in the year when we opened our new theatre). At a performance of Iris in 1997, a visitor from New York has recommended it and from that point on it was ‘on the list’. If Tosca in 2008 launched Amanda Echalaz into the stratosphere, her performance as Fiora in this production was a powerful prelude. A sensational ninety-minute opera of extraordinary power and eroticism, Martin Lloyd Evan’s show was a blend of stark, brutal design and poetic visual beauty. A tear stained my cheek at every performance of the act 3 prologue, Martin’s breathtaking funeral entrance of the chorus impossible to resist. And there is no more touching a duet than when Fiora’s husband, aware of her coldness to him, knowing she doesn’t love him, begs her to at least pretend that she does. On opening night, a gruff Jake La Motta lookalike marched over to me and said in a broad Brooklyn accent that he had been ‘waitin’ since nineteen fifty fokkin six, to see dis aapra again’. No pressure then, but his journey from New York wasn’t wasted, his tears at the end said it all and so did his reappearance at every performance until the end. Montemezzi’s masterpiece may well be my favourite opera of all: and my daughter is named Fiora.

Queen of Spades (2006)

Martin Lloyd Evans again brought mesmerising visual poetry and staging to Tchaikovsky’s darkly psychological masterpiece but it was the clutching of triumph from the jaws of disaster that also gives this production such a profoundly memorable status. Our Hermann, perhaps the most demanding tenor role of them all, vocally collapsed during the first performance, his voice bludgeoned by infection, his confidence blasted by the experience and he fled home to Europe. With just two days until the next performance, James’s encounter with Valery Gergiev, in town with the Marrinsky, drew from the maestro’s ranks a stand-in Russian tenor who with but hours to prepare produced a miracle of technique and sheer balls. As the performance that we had come close to cancelling drew to an end, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s crushingly moving hymn and the chorus gently slipping to the ground in a shimmering blue light, we were all exhausted. The roar from the crowd is yet to be surpassed.

Iolanta (2008)

The amazing Orla Boylan, who had excelled in Queen of Spades, took the lead again with the brilliant Annilese Miskimmon in the director’s chair. As an opera it starts slowly as we meet our princess and those who entrap her. But from then onwards Tchaikovsky delivers tune after tune. Orla Boylan and the tenor Peter Auty created a storm of intense passion every night during their duet, a scene that I insisted on watching every time; a gorgeous, magical production.

Kát’a Kabanova (2009) & Jenufa (2007)

Our two forays into Janáček territory remain among the finest productions ever given by OHP. Both operas were directed by Olivia Fuchs, conducted by Stuart Stratford and starred Anne Sophie Duprels. The darkness of the repertoire, shot through with wondrous lyricism became impossible to forget. These productions stuck in the mind with searing imagery, perhaps best personified by the utterly magical scene between Tom Randle and Anne Sophie in Kát’a when he walks with her into the water. These two productions represented genuinely great opera.

Fidelio (2003)

Olivia Fuchs again and an opera we were wary of to begin with. Stark and modern, this production came as Guantanamo had just begun to enter our cultural reference: as the prisoners were revealed – in silence – the shock of the imagery audibly shot through those watching. Yvonne Howard and Alan Oke were superb and this was perhaps our earliest great success.

Norma (2004)

Our first Bellini and not a rousing success as a production but I include it for two very simple reasons; Nellie Miricioiu in the title role and Diana Montague as Adalgisa, artists at the top of their game and a true revelation to us at the time of what the future could hold. I will leave it to the review by The Times to describe what I mean:

“Miricioiu – this was singing of supernatural delicacy and craft, and she has a presence of such understated dignity and grace it is impossible to take your eyes off her. Her duets with Montague’s Adalgisa, half an hour of pure emotion in sound straddling the interval, were just miraculous: these voices pirouetting as gracefully as ice dancers somewhere in the musical ether. Montague conceded nothing in quality, giving a profoundly moving performance of vast vocal accomplishment and concentrated feeling. This was hypnotic, heart-stopping musical beauty.”

I gioielli della Madonna (2013)

A huge, controversial and ultimately thrilling opera that had all of London talking and which without question tested the company to a degree never before experienced. Martin Lloyd Evans and conductor Peter Robinson were again entrusted to bring one of our rarities to vivid life and it is arguably their finest achievement – and there is a very good case to say it is the company’s greatest too. With a band of seventy and a chorus of sixty, it showed quite how well the theatre can cope with the acoustic of mega-orchestration and we have perhaps made a rod for our own backs! But the work was a revelation as was the exciting young soprano Natalya Romaniw who delivered a ferocious portrayal of Maliella. And throughout the piece, there were moments that I shall never forget; the heartbreak of Diana Montague’s duet with her tortured son, the horror of the final scenes, the stupendous chorus to end Act two and the mesmerising procession of the Madonna. From start to finish, James chided me for persuading him it was worth doing but one can only hope, now he has recovered, that he is glad he fell for it!

Very honourable mentions:

La forza del destino (2010)

The Consul (1999)

Rigoletto (2011)

L’amico Fritz (2011)

La rondine (2002 & 2011)

Yevgeny Onegin (2012)

L’arlesiana (2003 & 1998)

Macbeth (2005)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2013)