Arcana at the opera: Margot la Rouge & Le Villi @ Opera Holland Park

Margot la Rouge (1902)
Lyric Drama in One Act – music by Frederick Delius; Libretto by Rosenval
Sung in French with English surtitles

Margot – Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano), Sergeant Thibaud – Samuel Sakker (tenor), L’Artiste – Paul Carey Jones (bass-baritone), Lili Béguin – Sarah Minns (soprano), Nini – Laura Lolita Perešivana (soprano), La Patronne – Laura Woods (mezzo-soprano), Totor – David Woloszko (bass)

Le Villi (1883)
Opera-Ballet in Two Acts – music by Giacomo Puccini, Libretto by Ferdinando Fontana
Sung in Italian with English surtitles

Anna – Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano), Roberto – Peter Auty (tenor), Guglielmo – Stephen Gadd (baritone)

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director), takis (designer), Jake Wiltshire (lighting), Jami Read-Quarrel (movement)
Opera Holland Park Chorus, City of London Sinfonia / Francesco Cilluffo

Opera Holland Park, London
Thursday 21st July 2022 [7.30pm]

review by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Ali Wright

Delius and Puccini are unlikely operatic bedfellows (as anyone who recalls a near-disastrous ENO staging of Fennimore and Gerda with Gianni Schicchi three decades back will surely concur), but this double-bill by Opera Holland Park has an undeniable logic given both works started out as entries in the competition for one-act operas held on four occasions by Edoardo Sonzogno to encourage young talent (so gaining the upper hand against his established rival Ricordi). That neither proved successful at the time need not detract from the merits of either and if the concept of the one is, with hindsight, as uncharacteristic as that of the other appears immature, both contain more than enough worthwhile music along with arresting stagecraft to vindicate their revival in an imaginative production such as they receive on this occasion.

At the time he finished Margot la Rouge, Delius already had four operas behind him so was hardly unequipped for the task at hand. The challenge lay rather in adapting his increasingly personal, even metaphysical approach to the hard-hitting realism – not abetted by a libretto (written pseudonymously by Berthe Gaston-Danville) which reduces its characterization to stereotypes throughout. Yet the best of Delius’s music rises well above any one-dimensional sordidness – the plaintiveness of its prelude and mounting eloquence of its love scene (both refashioned as the Prelude and Idyll which was the composer’s final collaboration with Eric Fenby) equal to anything from his maturity. Had one or another of those earlier operas been acclaimed, the chances for Margot to reach the stage would have been appreciably greater.

The simple but effective revolving set favoured by Martin Lloyd-Evans presents this drama the more effectively for its unfussiness, enhanced by takis’s set designs and Jake Wiltshire’s resourceful lighting. Casting-wise the stage is dominated, as it needs to be, by Anne Sophie Duprels’s assumption of the title-role – emotionally guarded in its earlier sullenness, before ascending to heights of rapture once her identity becomes known. Samuel Sakker evinces the necessary ardency as Thibault and though Paul Carey Jones is a little too suave to convey the viciousness of The Artist, his commanding presence is never in doubt. Sarah Minns has just the right coquettishness as Lili, while there are telling cameos from Laura Lolita Perešvana, Laura Woods and, especially, David Woloszko among those (too?) numerous smaller roles.

Whereas Delius’s opera had to wait 82 years for its premiere, Puccini’s Le Villi hit the stage within a year of completion then was revived twice before the end of the decade – by which time, this ‘opera-ballet’ had expanded to two acts. Therein lies the problem, as Ferdinando Fontana’s modish libretto seems stretched beyond its effectiveness as drama, the threadbare nature in much of the latter scenario requiring a narrative element merely to hold it together. That said, there are various opportunities for characterizing the three protagonists of which Puccini made the most, with the central symphonic intermezzo L’abbandono e La tregenda (the latter still heard as an encore) confirming a new orchestral sophistication in Italian opera. Theatrically flawed as it may be, Le Villi is an auspicious and undeniable statement of intent.

Here, too, the Lloyd-Evans-takis-Wiltshire staging works to the advantage of this drama, yet without over-egging the supernatural shenanigans; credit, also, to Jami Reid-Quarrell for his utilizing the relatively restricted stage-space such that the dance element seems both alluring and more than compensates for the flailing narrative. Vocally, Anne Sophie Duprels has the measure of Anna as she traverses the gamut of emotions from diffidence, through heartbreak to revenge, with a continuity of expression not to be taken for granted. Peter Auty has made a speciality of high tenor roles, but his Roberto needs greater fervency and warmth to offset its shrillness. Not so Stephen Gadd, whose Guglielmo has a burnished humanity that commands attention on his (too few?) appearances and a clarity ideally suited to delivering the narrative.

The latter opera also gains from a typically lusty contribution by Opera Holland Park Chorus – and, in both works, the City of London Sinfonia responds with commitment to the dynamic direction of Francesco Cilluffo, who teases out the many dramatic nuances with alacrity. The orchestral reductions by Andreas Luca Beraldo have been judiciously gauged in both cases -that for Margot ironically closer to the orchestration undertaken by Eric Fenby in the absence of Delius’s score and which was soon mothballed once the original had been relocated. The relative unfamiliarity of these operas is a coup such as OHP has regularly delivered over the years, and one which is well worth the attention of more than just those drawn to rare opera.

Further performances take place on 29 July, 31 July [2pm], 2, 4 and 6 August. For more information visit the Opera Holland Park website

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