Saturday, 27 July 2019

A welcome chance to hear Cilea's other opera: a warmly musical account of L'Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park

Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Francesco Cilea L'Arlesiana; Fflur Wyn, Yvonne Howard, Samuel Sakker, Samantha Price, Keel Watson, James Cleverton, Simon Wilding, dir: Oliver Platt, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Dane Lam; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A warmly musical account of Cilea's other opera in a naturalistic production

Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Samantha Price, Yvonne Howard - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Cilea: L'Arlesiana
Samantha Price, Yvonne Howard
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
The composer Francesco Cilea's name is known thanks to the success of his opera Adriana Lecouvreur, though his work seems to remain undervalued in the UK. I first saw Adriana Lecouvreur in Naples in the 1980s at a time when a major production in the UK seemed unlikely (Opera Holland Park did it in 2002, and it reached Covent Garden in 2010). But Cilea's other operas remain rather unexplored.

Like a number of his contemporaries, Cilea never quite managed to transform success in one opera to a career as an opera composer and effectively abandoned opera after Gloria, the successor to Adriana Lecouvreur. Adriana's predecessor, L'Arlesiana was an opera which brought Cilea some success, and he would tinker with it over a period of 40 years, but despite a couple of well-known arias it remains on the fringes of the repertoire. Clearly, Opera Holland Park has a soft-spot for it as this year it presented its third production of the opera since 1998 giving us a rare chance to explore the music of this fine composer
.

We caught the second performance of Oliver Platt's new production of Cilea's L'Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park on Thursday 25 July 2019. Dane Lam conducted the City of London Sinfonia, with Samuel Sakker as Federico, Fflur Wyn as Vivetta, Yvonne Howard as Rosa Mamai, Samantha Price as L'Innocente, Keel Watson as Baldassare, Simon Wilding as Metifio and James Cleverton as Marco.

Cilea is often linked to the other composers of the Verismo school and though there are similarities, Cilea's style is somewhat different and perhaps in greater debt to composers like Massenet. L'Arlesiana is based on the stories of Alphonse Daudet, who made his name writing about Provencal peasant life. But there is something consciously artful and literary about Daudet's writing, which sets him apart from Giovanni Verga whose writing about Sicilian peasants started the Verismo trend (Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana is based on a Verga short story).


Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Samuel Sakker, Fflur Wyn - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Cilea: L'Arlesiana
Samuel Sakker, Fflur Wyn
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
So, whilst on paper L'Arlesiana might seem linked to the Verismo works of Mascagni and Leoncavallo, Cilea's approach is altogether more gentle and more reflective. Whilst the character of the love-sick Federico (in love with the 'woman from Arles' of the title) is very much a stock Verismo type character, Cilea is in fact almost as interested in the effect of Federico's behaviour on the family around him and L'Arlesiana is very much an ensemble drama which lacks the over-heated intensity of classic Verismo.

Oliver Platt's production, with designs by Alyson Cummins, was admirably unfussy and direct, giving us a clear telling of the story in an historical setting (brought forward to the 1930s or 1940s). The results were effective, and I am usually in favour of clear story-telling in relatively unusual operas, but despite some strong individual performances Platt's production never quite brought the characters into focus and you were never completely convinced that they mattered, and you wondered whether a more abstract, psychological approach might have worked.

Alyson Cummins' setting was finely realistic, but with a nice sense of the repressive nature of living in a country farm. Whilst the designs did suggest Southern France or Italy though, the production did not give us a feel for the heat and warmth of the Southern Summer.

One of the problems with the piece is that we never really learn the backdrop to Federico's obsession. Samuel Sakker gave a strong performance as Federico, impressing with the intensity of his singing and his robust Italianate tone, but we failed to glean many insights into his character. He did not look particularly like a romantic lead, but perhaps that is the idea, and we simply have to accept his collapse into jealousy in Act Three.

This meant that the central dramatic performance was very much that of Yvonne Howard as his mother, Rosa Mamai, the dominant character on the farm. Howard made Rosa Mamai perhaps more sympathetic, less suffocating than she could have but in Act Three Cilea her a long reflective aria, about motherhood being hell. Cilea objected to one opera house wanting to cut this, and you can understand why they might as it holds up the action, but Howard made it the centrepiece of the evening, giving us a riveting masterclass in expressive singing.

Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Keel Watson, Simon Wilding - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Keel Watson, Simon Wilding
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Fllur Wyn was profoundly touching as Vivetta, the young woman in love with Federico and who is first rejected, then accepted, then abandoned. Wyn's performance was beautifully generous, Vivetta is never quite the centre of attention but Wyn was always expressive and beautifully poised. Federico's younger brother L'Innocente is not given a name and that he is sung by a mezzo-soprano, here Samantha Price indicates his youth, perhaps more than that. There seemed a suggestion that he may be something a bit simple, and a positive transformation comes over him at the end.

Keel Watson gave a strong and generous performance as Baldassare, the old shepherd, whose story at the beginning of a wolf and a sheep forms the key to the whole drama. Simon Wilding was suitably intense as Metifio, the man who has recently been discarded by L'Arlesiana and remains obsessed by her. James Cleverton made the most of the small role of Marco, Federico's uncle.

This is not particularly a chorus opera, though the Opera Holland Park chorus made a strong and effective contribution, though perhaps they did not look quite like the peasants that they were supposed to be.

The operas score is full of beauties, and in the pit Dane Lam and the City of London Sinfonia played it with loving affection, bringing out the fine details of Cilea's orchestration whilst never overwhelming the singers.

Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Samuel Sakker, Fflur Wyn - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Samuel Sakker, Fflur Wyn - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
I was seeing the opera on what was the UK's hottest day and I felt sorry for the performers, all bundled up in their 1940s gear. And I have to admit that my own response to the piece might be coloured by the oppressive heat. L'Arlesiana is definitely an opera which deserves to be investigated further, and we must be grateful to Opera Holland Park for having the confidence in it to give such a warmly musical performance. I did wonder about Cilea's previous versions of this opera (though understand that the original four-act version is lost), as well as his other works such as his early Verismo piece La tilda, and his final operatic outing Gloria.

If you are interested in exploring further, the Charles Rosenkrans' 1991 recording of L'Arlesiana from Budapest is still probably the best recommended, though Cilea's final opera Gloria only seems to be currently available in rare second hand recordings, whilst I have not yet come across La tilda on disc!

Opera Holland Park's season continues until 3 August, and it will be back next year with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Lehar's The Merry Widow, Verdi's Rigoletto and an intriguing double bill of Delius' Margot le Rouge and Puccini's Le Villi.

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