Prior to the success of Adriana Lecouverer, Francesco Cilea’s often neglected opera, L’arlesiana, embodies the emotional complexities of domestic and romantic love. Written in 1897, the work is pivotal in the age of Verismo — Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci serve as pioneering narratives depicting the everyday. Small wonder, then, that librettist Leopoldo Marenco drew inspiration from Alphonse Daudet’s naturalist play of the same name. Notably, the opera’s premise is daring. From stigmatised explorations of mental health to a dynamic best described as a Jocasta complex, Opera Holland Park champions itself on giving voice to operatic rarities — this 2019 season being no exception.
Under the direction of Oliver Platt, this new production found itself in the rustic setting of a farmyard in Provence. The stage is littered with the expected agrarian clutter; rakes and spades, scraps of oxidised metal and disused cogs of a wheat mill. Whilst the staging is intentionally jumbled, the music is the contrary. Under the baton of Dane Lam, the City of London Sinfonia is attentive and scrupulous in delivery. Conscious of the outdoor venue that OHP markets as its USP, both the musicians and the conductor are wary of being heard. Whilst the weather was on their side, the design of the venue — effectively a tent-like dome, occasionally made the intricate dynamic writing escape. Other moments however, such as the pizzicato passages for the strings affirm the orchestra’s capable merits.
Conversely, projection was not a challenge for Keel Watson, who’s portrayal of Baldassare — the wise, older shepherd, carried a dignified gravitas to it. Watson’s acting was of equal calibre to his singing – assured and dependable. In the opera’s opening scenes, the dynamic between him and Mama Rosa’s younger son, L’Innocente was charming; pretending to be soldiers using wooden sticks as a gun.
Whilst not the fault of direction, rather, the flaw of the plot, the development of L’innocent seems somewhat stunted. For a character to tackle the theme of mental health — frequently addressed via the pejorative term ‘simpleton’ by other characters in the opera, the idea may have been cast in the dated libretto for comedic purposes, though a contemporary audience feels compassion rather than mockery. Samantha Price’s portrayal of the timid younger son was appropriate and moving – her vocal delivery capturing the naiveties of youth, but also the sense of societal ostracisation was evident in still tableaux scenes.
Yvonne Howard’s portrayal of Rosa Mamai was executed with ease, and the role’s vocal demands, whilst objectively difficult seemed well within the mastery of Howard technique. During moments of genuine pathos — particularly the Act III lament ‘Esser madre è un inferno, Howard’s sense of emotional turmoil is palpable. Perhaps the most striking moment of the entire opera would be the denouement — her son’s graphic suicide, of which she is unable to stop. Upon finding his dead body, she returns with bloodsoaked hands, whilst the orchestra’s macabre soundscape washes over her.
Making his Opera Holland Park debut is Samuel Sakker as Federico. During moments of vocal complexity — particularly breaking through the passagio register, Sakker’s projection and diction remained masterful. Torn between his lover in Arle — who remains an almost allegorical figure throughout, since we don’t see her, and Vivetta; his godmother’s daughter ultimately proves too much. The cause to his demise can be attributed to Simon Wilding’s assured Metifio — alluring, confident and unphased by his competition. The love letters that cement his relationship with the woman from Arle are accompanied by an appropriately brash demeanour.
Fflur Wyn’s portrayal of Vivetta carries the innocent charm the role demands. Desperate to prove herself as a capable lover, and devoted goddaughter, Wyn’s vocal dexterity is genuinely impressive. Despite rejection, Wyn’s vocal projection retains its full quality, despite the role’s essentially meek mould.
- Composer: Francesco Celia
- Librettist: Leopoldo Marenco
- Director: Oliver Platt
- Conductor: Dane Lam
- Cast: Samuel Sakker, Yvonne Howard, Fflur Wyn, Samantha Price, Keel Watson, Simon Wilding
- Venue: Opera Holland Park
- Until August 2, 2019