Holland Park, London
May 31, 2018
Holland Park is a large and beautiful green place situated in Kensington, a district west of London’s West End (the theatre district). In the midst of the park was a mansion, Holland House, built in the Jacobean style in 1605 but this magnificent building was partially destroyed by bombing in 1940. In 1996, the ruins and an area of land close to the house were taken over by local opera lovers to create a venue for an open-air opera ‘house’. Twenty-two years later artistic success and sponsorship has allowed the open air seating to be enclosed in a waterproof dome, creating a large and comfortable auditorium where on this balmy evening in May a full house assembled for Così Fan Tutte.
Così Fan Tutte is referred to by some as “Mozart’s comic masterpiece” but I wonder if anyone is laughing now, for this opera seems like an exemplar for the “me-too” generation of girls. Look no further than the title to be hit in the face by its condescension and misogyny. Its complex plot can be called comic only if judged in the way that can deem much of life to be comic i.e. confused and complicated with ‘comic’ results achieved at the expense of sorrow for others. Mozart catches that contradiction with all the skill and brio of a champion angler. Most fortunately for this production, Dane Lam was holding the rod/wielding the baton and in his hands and those of Opera Holland Park’s resident orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia, jokes, sorrows and subtlety were achieved.
Opera Holland Park’s Così Fan Tutte. Photo © Robert Workman
Lam is a master communicator of musical messages and I was lucky to have a seat where not only did I have a complete view of the stage but also of the conductor. What I saw was Lam’s involvement intellectually and physically in every note that is played or sung. His leadership in communicating to players and singers the detail of the notes was spellbinding. The City of London Sinfonia is a chamber orchestra with many young players in its ranks and under Lam’s leadership they produced sensitive and insightful support to the singers. It was not perfection, the horns and a couple of other sections fumbled the odd entry but they never wavered in their communication of the intention behind what they played.
It was fortunate that such a foundation was created, for sadly the dramatic intention seemed limited to presenting a period opera in period style but with little ambition to reach its modern audience. This was strange because the director, Oliver Platt, has an impressive record of work at Opera Holland Park and other major opera houses. On this occasion, however, he appeared to have set himself the too difficult aim of highlighting the way in which the opera’s mixture of comedy and tragedy reflected the confusions of everyday life in the 18th century. The comedy however lacked both invention and élan thus leaving the tragedy fatally muddied by lack of contrast. Visually Alyson Cummins’ rococo designs created a charming location for the action, although it seemed they had presented a few problems to the director.
Eleanor Dennis, Sarah Tynan and Kitty Whately Opera Holland Park’s Così fan tutte © Robert Workman
The mainly youthful cast did however meet the challenges with engaging, strong performances. The sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are at the core of the plot and Eleanor Dennis, Fiordiligi, and Kitty Whately, Dorabella, were a strong and credible core to this production. Whately created Dorabella’s immature flightiness and humour with a lightness and sweetness of tone which perfectly encapsulated the character, while Dennis communicated Fiordiligi’s constancy and thoughtfulness with the rich beauty of her voice. This culminated in her singing of Per pieta, the opera’s stand out aria to which she gave a stand out performance, rich in sound and nuanced in delivery and all achieved despite being required to open drawers and put away props while performing. It was a tribute to such outstanding singing that we were not totally distracted at this key moment. (The musicians union should be complaining on her behalf!)
Nick Pritchard, Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately and Nicholas Lester in Opera Holland Park’s Così fan tutte © Robert Workman
As their misogynistic fiancés and tormentors, Australian baritone Nicholas Lester (Guglielmo) and Nick Pritchard as Ferrando, both managed to charm this feminist with their voices. Pritchard’s tenor has great beauty and I can’t imagine I would be the only one, male or female, eager for any opportunity to hear him again. Lester has a fine stage presence and a voice which matches. During this first night performance he had a few moments when he seemed to lose his confidence, but this was swiftly restored as it deserved to be for there were signs throughout the performance that the company could have used a little more rehearsal time.
Each of the two camps, female and male, is completed by the character of someone who presents themself as an “advisor” though the term “instigator” would be nearer the mark. As Despina, the maid who sees her mission as to jolt the sisters out of their self-pity, Sarah Tynan brought a welcome breath of fresh air and energy to the first act with the clarity and expressiveness of her voice and the strength of her characterisation. Her inability to quite maintain this level of performance may have been due to the tentative blocking of the movement as she was right back on comedic form when she assumed the roles of doctor and notary.
Peter Coleman-Wright in Opera Holland Park’s Così Fan Tutte. Photo © Robert Workman
Her male counterpart is Don Alfonso, a friend of the Guglielmo and Ferrando, here successfully played by Peter Coleman-Wright as an older military man. Alfonso is the creator of the disgraceful plot to trick the girls into infidelity. He is altogether an unpleasant character and playing him not so much as a ‘pal’ as a senior army colleague made sense of why these two nice young men so meekly follow his dastardly plans. Coleman-Wright’s stiff self-important demeanour and hard edged vocal delivery did not shy away from the character’s unpleasantness and created a thoroughly credible character, though perhaps a touch more humour would have allowed us to appreciate him more.
So, to summarise: what we were privileged to hear was Mozart’s amazing music played and sung by amazingly talented young artists in an amazing location on a warm summer’s night – when it did not rain!
Opera Holland Park’s Così fan tutte plays until June 22