June sees the start of the silly season for London opera fans. The main houses are still in full swing, yet the country house ‘three Gs’ (Glyndebourne, Garsington and Grange Park) kick off in earnest. It’s a wild flurry of tickets, frantic diary juggling and picnic hampers. In the midst of this, the Opera Holland Park festival opens… and the heart gladdens. The festival is adored by opera newbies for its friendly, informal atmosphere – no dinner jackets to dust down – and its accessible ticket prices. Yet it is adored by aficianados too for its brave programming. General manager Michael Volpe and producer James Clutton are passionate about excavating forgotten gems of the repertoire – unearthing Italian verismo a speciality – and audiences salivate when the season announcement is imminent.

The Holland Park canopy © Opera Holland Park
The Holland Park canopy
© Opera Holland Park

The upcoming 2015 season – their 19th – is even more tasty than ever. OHP doesn’t often deal in revivals, but two of its very finest productions make welcome return appearances to the main stage. Gianni Schicchi is an opera that cannot fail to make you laugh, whatever the quality of the production. Thankfully, Martin Lloyd-Evans’ production, revived under Oliver Platt, is riotously funny. Last time out, Schicchi was paired with a Mascagni rarity. Now, it takes it rightful place as the final opera of Il trittico for which it was intended. The three operas which make up Puccini’s triptych could not be more different. Il tabarro (The Cloak) is a juicy slab of Grand Guignol about illicit love, revenge and murder on the Seine. Barge-owner Michele discovers that his wife, Giorgetta, is having an affair with Luigi, one of his stevedores. It’s the least popular of the three operas, but has some darkly atmospheric music and a cracking monologue for the baritone singing Michele, a role taken here by OHP regular, Stephen Gadd.

Suor Angelica is a touchingly sentimental piece about a young nun who has been sent to the convent by her family. She harbours a guilty secret which is revealed in a shocking central confrontation. It can be a saccharine piece in the wrong hands, so it’ll be interesting to see how Oliver Platt directs the drama, especially the denouement which should deliver a blow to the solar plexus. Anne Sophie Duprels is used to tugging heartstrings under the Holland Park canopy, as those who witnessed her Madama Butterfly a couple of seasons ago loudly testify.  

Main entrance to Opera Holland Park © Opera Holland Park
Main entrance to Opera Holland Park
© Opera Holland Park
Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore del tre re (The Love of Three Kings) is a perfect example of Italian operatic gold for which Holland Park is renowned: lust, jealousy, revenge, murder – it’s got all the ingredients you’d expect. Set in the Middle Ages, a blind king (Archibaldo) believes his daughter-in-law (Fiora) is having an affair. None of his courtiers will cooperate with his enquiries and, in frustration, he strangles her. In the final act, he smears poison on Fiora’s lips, hoping he can trap her mystery lover. Avito, a prince of Altura and Fiora’s lover, does indeed kiss her and – with his dying breath – reveals to Manfredo (Archibaldo’s son) that he was her lover. A grief-stricken Manfredo also kisses Fiora, leaving his father in despair.

Premièred in 1913, Arturo Toscanini was an advocate and took it to Amercia, where it fared better than in Europe before eventually sinking into near oblivion. Martin Lloyd Evans’ 2007 production is regarded as one of OHP’s absolute best and its revival is eagerly anticipated, not least for the chance to see Natalya Romaniw (who starred in the stonking production of Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna two summers ago) as Fiora.

Another rarity, this time in a French vein, comes with Delibes’ Lakmé. Just as The Pearl Fishers is more than that duet, so Lakmé is more than the Flower Duet, so familiar from its usage in British Airways advertising over the decades. Both operas explore late 19th century French orientalism, with an exotic setting, florid vocal music for the lead soprano and a conflict between love and religion. Lakmé is set in the India of the British Raj and the plot centres around the love between Lakmé (a Brahmin’s daughter) and Gérald, a British officer, and what happens when her father intervenes. Director Aylin Bozok has excellent form when it comes to French opera. She directed outstanding small scale productions of Pelléas et Mélisande and Werther at the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Festival over the past two summers and I don’t doubt that she will do something equally imaginative and sensitive with Leo Delibes’ delicately perfumed opera. Lakmé’s Bell Song “Où va la jeune Hindoue?” in Act II is much beloved by coloratura sopranos. Fflur Wyn takes on the challenging role here, while stylish tenor Robert Murray sings the role of Gérald.

James Clutton and Michael Volpe © Opera Holland Park
James Clutton and Michael Volpe
© Opera Holland Park
The performance on 27 July wil be very special. Christine Collins, who sadly died last year, was a tremendous supporter of OHP and was the founder donor behind the Christine Collins Young Artists scheme to give talented young singers the chance to perform on the main stage. In this performance, all but the two lead roles of Lakmé and Gérald will be performed by members of the scheme, insuring her tremendous legacy is kept alive.

Mention Verdi’s Aida and many people’s minds turn instantly to the Triumphal Scene as Radamès returns to Thebes after defeating the Ethiopians in battle: the Grand March, with horses, camels, elephants plus a cast of thousands, is part of operatic myth. Daniel Slater shouldn’t be too focused with directing traffic on the wide Holland Park stage. While some venues go for the full Cecil B de Mille staging – and there are few more spectacular sights than seeing the opera in an amphitheatre like Verona’s – Aida is more chamber-like than many people imagine. The opera is essentially an intimate love triangle between Radamès, the Egyptian princess Amneris and her Ethiopian slave, Aida (who is also a princess). Peter Auty, Heather Shipp and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers take on the principal roles.

Staging contemporary opera is a risky business, so it’s great news that Jonathan Dove’s Flight, commissioned by Glyndebourne and last seen there in 2005, touches down for its first professional London staging. The plot is set in an airport lounge, where a refugee is trapped without any documentation to allow him to legally enter the country. The plot – often comic – follows his entanglements with a range of passengers stranded at the airport due to inclement weather. Countertenor James Laing tackles the role of the refugee, while a line-up of Holland Park favourites are whisked through passport control.

Fflur Wyn (Alice) and James Cleverton (The White Rabbit) © Alex Brenner
Fflur Wyn (Alice) and James Cleverton (The White Rabbit)
© Alex Brenner
Contemporary opera for all ages appears in the guise of Alice in Wonderland, OHP’s first ever family opera, composed by Will Todd. Taking place on the woodland setting of the Yucca Lawn, this favourite will enrapture audiences young and old again this season.

OHP is committed to bringing opera to older audiences too. Its INSPIRE  ticket scheme continues, where a limited number of tickets are available at just £17 for all public performances (Online sales only, opening on 13th April). 1,000 free tickets are also available to young people, plus 450 free seats for those over 60 (opens by telephone on the 27th of April). There’s no better place to try out opera for the first time… or for the experienced operagoer to try out a Holland Park rarity.

 

Public booking opens Thursday 23rd April. For further details visit the Opera Holland Park website