© Opera Holland Park
© Opera Holland Park
For seekers of rare operatic repertoire, the season announcement for Opera Holland Park is one of those red letter days. Mike Volpe and James Clutton, that indefatigable duo in charge of this inventive company, delight in digging up forgotten gems… and if they’re any good, they’ll dust them down a second time. For example, last season saw a revival of OHP’s 2007 gritty production of Montemezzi’s L’amore del tre re. If you know anything about Mike, it’s that rare verismo floats his operatic boat. I suspect he was secretly gutted that Wexford Opera Festival beat him to it to stage Mascagni’s gothic Guglielmo Ratcliff last season, but a different Mascagni opera headlines Holland Park’s festival this summer: Iris.

Cover illustration to the score of <i>Iris</i>
Cover illustration to the score of Iris
Set in Japan, Iris was composed in 1898, five years before Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Based on a libretto by Luigi Illica (who also wrote the libretti for Butterfly, Tosca and La bohème), it tells the sordid tale of a beautiful young washerwoman who tends her blind father. She falls for the young lord, Osaka, but he abducts her and sells her to a brothel-keeper. Paraded to potential customers, Iris is disowned by her father, throws herself into a sewer and dies a miserable death. Holland Park first staged Iris in 1997 and revived it the very next season. It is now giving it a new production to open its 2016 festival. Olivia Fuchs, whose OHP credits include Lucia di Lammermoor and Norma, directs a strong cast, including Anne-Sophie Duprels in the title role and exciting young tenor Noah Stewart as Osaka. Stuart Stratford, who brought out such tremendous orchestral detail in last year’s triumphant Il trittico, conducts the City of London Sinfonia, Holland Park’s doughty resident orchestra. Mascagni’s score blazes, not least in the glorious “Hymn to the Sun”.

Iris opens Holland Park’s 21st season and with the keys to the door comes the company’s independence from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The rest of the season may be packed with more familiar fare, but there are plenty of reasons why opera lovers will be trekking along to Kensington this summer. Directors to watch out for include Oliver Platt who stages Rossini’s sparkling comedy La Cenerentola. This is also a significant first for Holland Park – a first ever co-production, teaming up with Danish National Opera, which tours it in the autumn. Imaginative directors Stephen Barlow and Martin Lloyd-Evans are at the helm for La bohème and Die Fledermaus (a rare foray into operetta) while Athens-born Rodula Gaitanou stages The Queen of Spades.

Apart from shrewd budgeting and a sense of operatic adventure, what makes Opera Holland Park special is the admirable sense of ‘company’ it has nurtured over the years.

George Von Bergen and Kitty Whately in <i>Flight</i> © Robert Workman
George Von Bergen and Kitty Whately in Flight
© Robert Workman
Young singers are encouraged, developed and given the chance to blossom. Take last year. I watched one of the final performances of Il trittico, where young soprano Anna Patalong was given the opportunity to step into Duprels’ shoes as Suor Angelica. To see the pride – and the tears – on James Clutton’s face at the second interval demonstrated just how fervently the directors believe in their artists. This summer, Patalong stars as Mimì in La bohème… but not before making her Paris Opéra debut in March. Holland Park has a habit for spotting real talent.

Other young singers to watch for include Elin Pritchard (Musetta in Bohème), Nico Darmanin – the other Maltese tenor! – in Cenerentola and Susanna Hurrell (Rosalinde in Fledermaus). Singing the role of the maid Adele in Fledermaus is Jennifer France, a soprano with stratospheric top notes, heard to amazing effect in last season’s hit production, Flight. Here was another example of the Holland Park spirit – a superb ensemble tackling contemporary opera and providing one of my best opera experiences of the year. It was so good, I went back for more!

Joel Montero and Natalya Romaniw in <i>L'amore del tre re</i> © Robert Workman
Joel Montero and Natalya Romaniw in L'amore del tre re
© Robert Workman
Some of the tastiest casting arrives in the final production of the season: Tchaikovsky’s gripping ghost story The Queen of Spades. I first saw soprano Natalya Romaniw in Guildhall’s Iolanta and have followed her career with interest. After a couple of high octane verismo outings in previous seasons, here she returns to Tchaikovsky and the character of Lisa, in love with Hermann. Peter Wedd tackles this role of the gambler who is desperate to discover the secret of ‘the three cards’. Holland Park is blessed to have an artist of the stature of Rosalind Plowright to take on the pivotal role of the Countess, keeper of the winning formula. 

Young audiences are catered for with OHP’s terrific Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Will Todd’s opera which the company took to Covent Garden last autumn. For those wishing to dip a toe into opera, the INSPIRE project allocates 1500 free seats to youngsters and the over 60s, while another 2500 seats are priced at just £17, plus another 300 tickets at £20 for under 30s. Be warned though: once bitten, the opera bug takes hold and you’ll become a Holland Park ‘lifer’...