The Italian verismo of Francesco Cilea’s L’arlesiana is drenched in Provençal sunshine, less earthy than the throbbing Sicilian heat of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, but with softer, pastoral shades. At just an hour and three quarters, it never outstays its welcome and has a hit number – “È la solita storia” – beloved by tenors everywhere. Strangely, it ranks below Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, that generous slice of ham for past-their-prime sopranos. Thankfully, Opera Holland Park holds a torch for it – Oliver Platt’s is the company’s third staging in 21 years – whereas nobody else touches it with the proverbial bargepole.

Samuel Sakker (Federico) and Fflur Wyn (Vivetta) © Ali Wright
Samuel Sakker (Federico) and Fflur Wyn (Vivetta)
© Ali Wright

The opera is based on an episode in Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from my Windmill), anecdotes about rural Provençal life. In 1872, Daudet created a play based on one of its short stories where a young man discovers that the mysterious woman from Arles whom he plans to marry has another lover. Bizet composed the incidental music for the premiere at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris, music of great charm which is largely responsible for keeping the play’s memory alive. Cilea composed his operatic version, premiered in 1897 with the great Enrico Caruso in the role of the lovesick Federico. Initially, it enjoyed considerable success before falling into near-obscurity.

Platt’s no-frills staging suits this opera. After a scorching day, the setting sun kissed the Holland Park canopy as the action played out on Alyson Cummins’ simple set of stone walls, littered with cartwheels and crates. The villagers are decked out in traditional costumes and the whole thing has an authentic, rustic feel.

Cilea and his librettist, Leopoldo Marenco, rather telegraph the ending when, in the first scene, L’innocente – Federico’s younger brother, a simpleton – climbs up to the hayloft and Mama Rosai throws a wobbly; “If someone was to fall from up there…” Guess how the opera ends.

Samantha Price (L'innocente) and Keel Watson (Baldassare) © Ali Wright
Samantha Price (L'innocente) and Keel Watson (Baldassare)
© Ali Wright

Famously, the mystery woman from Arles never appears – indeed, in modern French, Arlésienne describes a person who is absent from a place or a situation – but Platt can’t resist giving her a cameo in the Intermezzo before Act 3, a red dress for the scarlet woman who extravagantly smokes a cigarette while posturing in front of Rosa Mamai’s home. It’s a fair call.

The cast gives it their all. Keel Watson sang Baldassare, the old shepherd who narrates the story (of a goat fighting off a hungry wolf all night, only to die at dawn) that runs through the opera. Watson’s bass was effortful at times, but he projected well over the orchestra and was always a sympathetic presence. With her chirpy mezzo, Samantha Price was excellent as the younger brother, puzzled at the world but who throws off that innocence in the third act. Bell-toned Fflur Wyn made a fine Vivetta – the girl Mama Rosai wants Federico to settle down with. It’s a role of Micaëla-like charm and Wyn was the perfect fit. Simon Wilding’s Metifio was vocally rough round the edges, but it suited the burly drover who’s been messing about with the girl from Arles behind Federico’s back.

Yvonne Howard (Rosa Mamai) © Ali Wright
Yvonne Howard (Rosa Mamai)
© Ali Wright

Samuel Sakker sang Federico with great commitment and ringing top notes. His lament “È la solita storia” was plangently phrased and he rose well to the character’s delirium when Federico finds out that Metifio is going to abduct his girl from Arles. Racing to the hayloft at dawn, when he hears galloping hooves, he shoots himself and topples over the edge. Best of all was Yvonne Howard as Rosa Mamai, the archetypal Mediterranean mother who despairs at her boy’s romantic choices and interferes. Her aria “Esser madre è un inferno”, where Rosa laments the tribulations of motherhood, was sung with great emotion, Howard’s warm mezzo rising to the scene’s considerable challenges.

Dane Lam coaxed a warm performance from the City of London Sinfonia, particularly the pastoral woodwind solos such as the curling oboe when Baldassare tries to persuade Federico to come away with him to the mountains.

In all, this L’arlesiana is a good, honest staging with solid singing that adds up to something considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

****1