2022 is the summer that keeps on giving. Almost every country house has produced at least one banger this season and now it’s the turn of Opera Holland Park to do what it does best and slather on the shocks with not one but two grim, revenge-fuelled one-acters. Just the thing for a balmy night in West London.
Margot la Rouge is a lurid slice of Anglo-French verismo from the unlikely pen of Yorkshire’s finest, Frederick Delius. Although not a particularly early work (he was 40 when he composed it) the composer’s familiar idiom cuts through only occasionally, chiefly in the romantic duet for soprano and tenor that lies at the work’s heart. The short Prelude could have been composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber; the scenario, by the French writer Berthe Gaston-Danville and sung in her native language rather than in English, has more of Quentin Tarantino than Eric Fenby.
As little shockers go, this 45-minute rarity is on the shabby side with its fleeting shades of both Carmen and Il tabarro. A surfeit of named characters struggle to make any kind of mark, while only the central threesome play a functional role in a shallow plot that has barely enough tension to earn its big finish. Flame-haired Margot is a prostitute and the lover of a violent thug ironically named L’Artiste (thanks to his fancy way with a sharp blade). One evening a passing soldier, Thibault, recognises Margot as his former lover Marguerite. Old feelings are re-awakened. Chase to the cut: within minutes both of her suitors, the past and the present, lie bloodied and dead. Margot: red indeed! Of hair, tooth and claw.
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans does what he can with this material and Paul Carey Jones supports him to the hilt with a chillingly acted, balefully sung cameo as L’Artiste. Tenor Samuel Sakker as Thibault makes the best of his undernourished part, although vocally he is more a gruff military man than a yearning romantic, while in the title role Anne Sophie Duprels is dangerously silent for long spells.
On opening night, Francesco Cilluffo conducted the City of London Sinfonia with conviction but too much volume for a comfortable aural balance and several voices disappeared into the OHP awnings. Curiously, that concern did not apply to the evening’s second opera, Le Villi, so expertly did Puccini write for the voice. Even reduced from the original 70 players to only 35, the excitement of his orchestral palette was staggering and the CLS played out of their collective skins.
Cards on the table, I was already familiar with the score for Le Villi and my expectations for it here were moderate at best, not least since the designer, takis, was using the same basic set for both operas. Such is the latent power of opera as theatre, however, that a good staging can breathe new life into any worthy corpse. And this staging wasn’t just good, it was superb. Did Lloyd-Evans under-direct Margot la Rouge because he had a show in his back pocket to knock us flat? Or, more likely, did the raw material of Le Villi inspire renewed vigour to enter its Giselle-inspired storyline? Either way, he surpassed every expectation, together with Jami Reid-Quarrell who contributed some mesmerising movement work with the trio of fine dancers who brought the Villi eerily to life.
Duprels sang again, this time as Anna, one among many heroines of tortured purity she has portrayed at this address over the years. The soprano’s vulnerability in the first half of this opera was matched only by her spectral menace in the supernatural second half, and she was in lustrous voice throughout.