Love comes in many forms: romantic love, caring love, sibling love, love born of admiration, duty or mere happenstance are just some of the forms explored in Mark Adamo’s Little Women, adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s eponymous bestseller, considered one of the great classics of 19th-century American literature. Opera Holland Park’s new production is the first in the UK; a beautifully crafted staging by Ella Marchment shows this to be an opera which explores its characters in an exceptionally compelling and profound way.

Kitty Whately (Meg), Elizabeth Karani (Amy), Charlotte Badham (Jo), Harriet Eyley (Beth)
© Opera Holland Park | Ali Smith

The novel is a loose autobiography, centred on the childhood and coming of age of Alcott and her three sisters, as well as on the men who come into their lives (the true story was adapted considerably to suit the commercial considerations of the day). It’s a long book, so the opera can only present a small subset of the whole; the childhood portion is skipped and we are focused in on the point at which the perfect (or is it?) sorority begins to fray as the sisters mature and their different characters, attitudes and wants begin to diverge irreconcilably.

It’s a magnificent piece of drama. The chosen scenes highlight the nature of each sister: Jo (the proxy for Alcott herself) wants the quartet of sisters to remain intact, with herself as the bestselling author and provider; she is horrified when Meg wants marriage. Amy wants escape from the family’s genteel poverty, Beth just wants her music. The childhood friendship between Jo and Laurie founders when Laurie wants friendship to turn into romance. The libretto, by Adamo himself, is packed with intelligent cross-references and telling one liners, with plenty of humour – my favourite gag is when Jo, on being asked what is the most desirable feature of a husband, replies “non-existence”.

Charlotte Hadham (Jo)
© Opera Holland Park | Ali Smith

Operating on hardly any resources (the set is built onto that of another production), designer Madeleine Boyd does an almost miraculous job of placing us into Alcott’s world, with costumes creating the atmosphere perfectly. And Boyd has done her research. Jo’s writing cap and smock are well attested to in biographies of Alcott – the writing cap used as a “do not disturb” sign and as a place to wipe her pen. Stage movement and acting are of the very best, throughout.

Charlotte Badham acts her socks off as Jo, going through the emotional travails of the sororal breakup and the discovery of her own needs and desires, magnetic in expressing Jo’s desperate desire to control everyone around her. But it’s a punishing role, with Jo involved in almost every action in over two hours of music, and Badham’s voice could have done with being a size larger to make impact above the orchestra. That’s not a charge that could be laid against any of the male roles: Frederick Jones’ Laurie was clear, ardent and more than capable of turning up the decibels when wanted; Harry Thatcher gave an equally committed portrayal of Meg's husband John Brooke’s earnest but slightly vacant sincerity. The best vocal moment of the opera was given to baritone Benson Wilson as the German Professor Friedrich Baehr, with his beautiful rendering, first in German then in English, of Goethe’s Kennst du das Land. Kitty Whately stood out amongst the rest of a solid cast as a feisty, vivid Meg.

Frederick Jones (Laurie), Charlotte Badham (Jo), Harriet Eyley (Beth)
© Opera Holland Park | Ali Wright

Adamo’s music is a strange beast. Like much American opera of recent years, it’s a great deal more listenable to than most of its European counterparts. Unlike much American opera, it stays firmly within the contemporary classical ambit without attempting to borrow from other genres. Like a great deal of the best film or television music, it’s incredibly effective at setting the right tone for the scene that it accompanies, always imparting the right emotion for the people and events you’re watching. Sian Edwards conducted the City of London Sinfonia expertly, handling the frequent shifts in dynamics, pace and instrumentation with aplomb. And yet this is not music that draws attention to itself. It is the music-assisted drama that will remain in the memory, not the music for its own sake.

Kitty Whately (Meg)
© Opera Holland Park | Ali Smith

At the end of the first half, I had a sense that some scenes had dragged a little, that perhaps a little too long had been spent on scene-setting. But the second half gripped me completely. By its end, I felt that my understanding of people and life and love had been enhanced, which is a rare thing for an opera.

Little Women was premiered in 1998. Why has it taken nearly a quarter of a century to reach the UK? On the basis of this production, I cannot imagine. Hats off to Opera Holland Park for being the ones to bring it to us.