Covid has brought radical change to always-inventive Opera Holland Park. The tent-like auditorium shell remains, with extra open sides for all-important fresh air, but gone is the fixed raked seating for 1,000, replaced by a random selection of 400 moveable, second-hand, begged and borrowed chairs in a recycling policy that extends up onto the stage, where the set from 2018’s successful La traviata (reprised later this season) has been adapted for the opening opera of 2021, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. The message is clear: it’s great to be back in business, but times are hard.

Ross Ramgobin (Figaro) and Samantha Price (Cherubino)
© Ali Wright

That huge reduction in seating allows for social distancing, of course, but it also gives welcome space for the stage to be massively extended. It thrusts deep into the auditorium, and completely surrounds the reduced orchestra. It looks impressive, but it brings its own problems, more of which later.

Oliver Platt’s new production goes for colour and laughter, and thank goodness for that: we’ve had enough gloom to last a lifetime. Costumes by takis are traditional, but with a vivid, Technicolor twist. Wigs are high, hemlines low. Amid all the18th-century flummery, contemporary touches abound: movement director Caitlin Fretwell Walsh has both cast and excellent chorus disco dancing; a pocket camera appears for a wedding snap; Cherubino transforms into a karaoke rocker for his canzonetta, rolling his manuscript up into a microphone.

Nardus Williams (Countess)
© Ali Wright

The comedy took a while to settle, with Elizabeth Karani and Ross Ramgobin working hard as the artful Susanna and Figaro, both vocally secure and alert to all the comic possibilities as they plotted to outwit the lecherous Count of Julien Van Mellaerts, who played him as an entitled bully, a portrayal underlined by Paul Hastie’s incisively modern surtitle translation, which dwells on the Count’s vicious contempt for Figaro. 

Nardus Williams, as the wronged Countess, was not well served by the set in Act 2. Her boudoir was so far upstage it made her lament “Porgi amor” distant and indistinct – a problem for all the other characters who crowd into the room as the plot thickens. But later, when not hampered by drapery and distance, she imbued “Dove sono” with a memorable silvery tenderness.

The sheer size of the stage, coupled with the loss of 600 sound-absorbing audience members, brings acoustic challenges that will take time to solve. When singers turn upstage, their voices are lost on the air, and placing the hard-working players of the City of London Sinfonia inside the apron means that admirable conductor George Jackson often has his back to the cast, leading to occasional moments of rocky ensemble.

Elizabeth Karani (Susanna) and Samantha Price (Cherubino)
© Ali Wright

These problems mar some otherwise fine performances among the smaller roles. Daniel Norman is hilariously slithery as the crazily-wigged, conniving Don Basilio, which he doubles with a suitably pendantic Don Curzio. James Cleverton makes an unusually menacing Bartolo and Victoria Simmonds a distinctly unfrumpy Marcellina. Claire Lees is a charming, sweetly-sung Barbarina, and Henry Grant Kerswell is genuinely funny as the hapless gardener, Antonio. The most winning performance of the evening comes from Samantha Price as Cherubino, who combines her distinctively golden mezzo with a wonderful gift for comedy.

No doubt some of the awkward acoustic moments will be ironed out as the run progresses. In the meantime, let’s raise a cheer for James Clutton and his team at OHP for finding ever-resourceful ways to make another season of opera happen... even in a pandemic.