A people's Glyndebourne in London - and the price is right!

Holland Park Opera is unusual in that it is run as part of the “Arts and Leisure Services” department of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London. It even, uniquely in the UK, gets £200,000 subsidy from local property taxpayers and is thus not entirely dependent on sponsors Korn/Ferry and on ticketsales (£56 - £42). It seats 1,024 of which there are 26 free seats at every performance for children aged 9 to 18, and 108 seats at £12. It is almost always sold out.
 Over 20 years Mike Volpe, the moving spirit behind this whole project, has created a seriously committed local audience including more recently a “friends’ organisation” that helps raise support. Opera-goers bring Glyndebourne-style picnics but don’t dress up. OHP has extended London’s operatic diet, providing 46 performances in front of what was left of Holland Park House after wartime bombing. Stage and audience are enclosed in a temporary structure that protects against inclement summers. Three pairs of operas are played in rep for about three weeks each. Volpe’s choices include a bit of unusual plus popular classics – next season offers Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as Carmen, Fidelio, La forza del destino and Don Giovanni.
 The economical casting is decent enough, and some of the conducting better than competent. The 2009 season opened with Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux conducted with typical singer-friendliness by Richard Bonynge (Joan Sutherland in the audience). Majella Cullagh made a credibly starry-sounding Elizabetta, and Leonardo Capalbo sounded sufficiently warm and exciting in the title role. Lindsay Posner’s modest staging told the story efficiently, using the historic backdrop as a visual aid, with lavish period costumes to enhance a realistic-cum-operatic atmosphere. Cullagh acted very well. Stephen Barlow’s production of Hänsel und Gretel was visually quite a lot more striking and original. Designer Paul Edwards used a wallpaper design of forest tree trunks and goblins to suggest a bedroom interior, with high skirting-boards and the bottom half of a giant door at the centre of the stage to scale the children to a suitable littleness. Gasmasks and clothing styles evoked wartime - the Sandman an air-raid warden, and the Dew-fairy a hospital nurse. The gingerbread house was a giant box of Bahlsen sweets. Anne Mason’s excellent Witch in lurid green, doubling as Mother, stole the show, though Donald Maxwell’s Father was also bloated, edgy and powerful. Peter Selwyn’s conducting was adequate, but the City of London Sinfonia (orchestra for the whole season) lacked the muscle and weight of string tone required.
 The best two shows of the season should have been Ballo in maschera and Kát’a Kabanová. Sadly, both tried much too hard to be artistic and missed the target. Volpe’s choice of directors is hopeful more than inspired. No doubt limited rehearsal time and the awkward relationship here between audience and stage make any search for new young talent rather a gamble. Martin Lloyd-Evans set Ballo in President Kennedy’s Camelot (with a messy stars & stripes set by Jamie Vartan). Solidly, stylishly conducted by Peter Robinson, it boasted a glorious Amelia from South African soprano Amanda Echalaz. At the premiere, David Rendall sang Gustavo from the orchestra with his compelling top notes still able to thrill, while a sick Rafael Rojas acted the part on stage. Carole Wilson was a stirring robust Madame Arvidson, with Gail Pearson charmingly intern-like as Oscar. But Olafur Sigurdarson’s strained undignified Ankarström (dressed as a US Admiral) was a come-down after his gripping performance in 2005 here in the title role of Macbeth.
 Stuart Stratford’s conducting of Kát’a was masterly, and the CLS played beautifully and attentively for him. Yannis Thavoris’s late Victorian costumes and evocative sets, with a sort of soft-fruit cage imprisoning Anne Sophie Duprels’s Kát’a and clever suggestions of the river with reeds and horizontal reflections of water or clouds, created a potentially strong environment. But Olivia Fuchs’s production was so stylised and self-conscious that Janáček’s potent distillation of Ostrovsky’s theme of manipulation and passion was reduced to a demonstrative showing-off exercise, with totally unconvincing gestures by the disciplined chorus or with Duprels fluttering her arms while being farewell hugged by Tom Randle’s Boris - who otherwise managed to resist the general over-acting. The cast in fact showed great promise - especially Andrew Rees’s eupeptic Kudrjáš, Richard Angas’s towering perverse Dikoj, Jeffrey Lloyd Robert’s apologetic Tichon, and (in a performance as well-geared as her Witch in Hänsel) Anne Mason’s embittered resentful Kabanicha.
 I got most fun from Tom Hawkes’s old-fashioned, downmarket but excellently directed Orpheus in the Underworld, with the theatrically experienced John Owen Edwards conducting. Daniel Broad as Pluto and Ian Caddy as Jupiter had exactly the right balanced confident friendly style. Jeni Bern’s Eurydice almost outstayed her welcome (as she should). And Jeremy Sams’s sparkling English version was a delight.

Donizetti: Roberto Devereux. Premiere on June 2. Conductor: Richard Bonynge, Production: Lindsay Posner, Design: Peter McKintosh, Lighting: Peter Mumford, Choreography: Adam Cooper. Cast: Majella Cullagh (Elisabetta), Leonardo Capalbo (Roberto Devereux), Yvonne Howard (Sara, Duchessa di Nottingham), Julian Hubbard (Duca di Nottingham), Aled Hall (Lord Cecil), Graeme Broadbent (Sir Gualtiero Raleigh) etc

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel. Premiere on June (performance attended June 13). Conductor: Peter Selwyn, Production: Stephen Barlow, Design: Paul Edwards, Lighting: Peter Mumford, Choreography: David Greenall. Cast: Catherine Hopper (Hänsel), Joana Seara (Gretel), Anne Mason (Mother/Witch), Donald Maxwell (Father), Katherine Allen (Sandman), Pippa Goss (Dew Fairy).

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld. Premiere on June 30 (performance attended July 4). Conductor: John Owen Edwards, Production: Tom Hawkes, Design: Peter Rice, Lighting: Colin Grenfell, Choreography: Jenny Weston. Cast: Jeni Bern (Eurydice), Benjamin Segal (Orpheus), Daniel Broad (Aristaeus/Pluto), Ian Caddy (Jupiter), Jill Pert (Juno), John Lofthouse (John Styx), Nuala Willis (Public Opinion), etc.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera. Premiere on July 21. Conductor: Peter Robinson, Production: Martin Lloyd-Evans, Design: Jamie Vartan, Lighting: Colin Grenfell, Choreography: Victoria Newlyn. Cast: Amanda Echalaz (Amelia), Rafael Rojas/David Rendall (Gustavo), Olafur Sigurdarson (Ankarström), Gail Pearson (Oscar), Carole Wilson (Madame Arvidson), Paul Reeves (Ribbing), Simon Wilding (Horn), Benedict Nelson (Christiano) etc

Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová. Premiere on July 24. Conductor: Stuart Stratford, Production: Olivia Fuchs, Design: Yannis Thavoris, Lighting: Colin Grenfell. Cast: Anne Sophie Duprels (Kát’a), Anne Mason (Kabanicha), Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts (Tichon), Tom Randle (Boris), Patricia Orr (Varvara), Andrew Rees (Kudrjáš), Richard Angas (Dikoj), Nuala Willis (Glaša), etc