Opera Holland Park: no longer a virgin…

What great fun Opera Holland Park is.  I think it helped that we were seeing Hänsel und Gretel, so that the distant chirruping and squawking from the Park’s longer-established feathered residents was eerily appropriate.  It may also have helped that our little bunch knew the Director so got a sneaky glimpse backstage afterwards.

The performance was wonderful and I couldn’t but marvel at how Stephen Barlow managed to get something so coherent and engaging onto a rather ungrateful stage.  With the first two acts, and most of the third played in gently declining, but nonetheless insistent, daylight achieving atmospheric effects was rather difficult.  It was also a fixed set for the whole piece, presumably to facilitate the changing of operas each night on a relatively constricted stage, and of course there were no facilities to fly scenery or backdrops in and out, and no opportunity to blackout the stage for manual changes of bits of set.  And still it enthralled as much as this piece always should.

The basic production ‘tenor’ was of fun:  no children on meathooks, no intrusive inventions, just good dark fun.  There was a general 1940s wartime theme, with the Dew Fairy a military nurse (of the matron variety) and the Sandman a Shelter Warden come to see them to bed.  The whole set was a beech-forest wallpapered room corner, with giant door which opened and closed to let characters on and off, and to add threat to potential entrances.  The witch’s gingerbread house was a giant lurid pink and yellow box of Bahlsen cakes and pastries.  Simple, but effective.

Performances were universally strong.  Anne Mason as both Mother and Witch was stronger as the latter, really going for it, inhabiting the most wonderfully camp characterisation:  green sequinned waisted jacket/skirt combo with green wig and sparkly top hat perched at an angle, finished off with a mint green fur coat.  Like a particularly over-the-top drag queen on St Patrick’s Day.

Both lead characters were wonderfully strong and I became aware of the constant surprise I have at how singers can capture the spirit of these two children.  Utterly believable in their wonder, curiosity, naughtiness and fear.  It was a privilege to see Donald Maxwell as the Father – his voice carried over the odd acoustic of the tent theatre marvellously and all words were clear and direct.  I seem to remember him on many G&S recordings of my youth… must look them up to check I’m remembering correctly!

The conducting was better in Act 3 than the first two.  I was starting to worry by the end of the second act that we were losing some momentum, but everything was firmly on bright forward-thrusted form for the witch’s scene.  The music is absolutely amazing; I can’t get enough of it.  Wagner with a smile.  Wagner with innocence and charm.  Moreover, short Wagner.  Just sublime.  I had to close my eyes during the prayer and the dream sequence, which was played in a lively and interesting way, but nonetheless, there’s something in that music that just makes me want to hear it and be transported…

Pace the earlier post on concert behaviour, we had someone who practically stomped out (quite noticeable on a temporary scaffold seating rig), people talking behind (we all banded together to turn, glare and raise an eyebrow which more or less did it), and an imbecile that thought he could tap his feet (more glaring).

And was that Karita Mattila I saw a few rows forward?  95% sure, we were, and the other half made a beeline to accost her, but the crowd closed in and she was swept away.  But that would have been the mere cherry on the top of a fantastic evening.  Next Holland Park stop: Orpheus in the Underworld in July.  Can’t wait:  an absolute obsession of my teenage years, and I’ve never seen it on stage…

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