Saturday 23 July 2022

More than just sisterhood: Mark Adamo's Little Women finally gets its UK premiere in Ella Marchment's imaginative production at Opera Holland Park

Mark Adamo: Little Women - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)
Mark Adamo: Little Women - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)

Mark Adamo: Little Women; Charlotte Badham, Kitty Whately, Harriet Eyley, Elizabeth Karani, Frederick Jones, Harry Thatcher, Benson Wilson, Lucy Schaufer, Victoria Simmonds, Nicolas Garrett, director Ella Marchment, City of London Sinfonia, conductor Sian Edwards; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed 23 July 2022 (★★★★½)

Adamo's imaginatively engaging opera finally gets its premiere in a sophisticated and appealing production with a superbly balanced quartet of sisters at its heart

Mark Adamo's opera Little Women has had some 135 different productions world wide since its debut at Houston Grand Opera in 1998, and finally it came the UK, courtesy of Opera Holland Park. Last night (22 July 2022), Sian Edwards conducted the City of London Sinfonia at Opera Holland Park in Ella Marchment's new production of Mark Adamo's Little Women. Charlotte Badham was Jo, with Kitty Whately, Harriet Eyley and Elizabeth Karani as her sisters Beg, Beth and Amy, Frederick Jones was Laurie, Harry Thatcher was John Brooke, Benson Wilson was Friedrich Bhaer, Lucy Schaufer was Aunt March with Victoria Simmonds and Nicholas Garrett as the girls' parents. Designs were by Madeleine Boyd with lighting by Rory Beaton and movement by Sarah Louise Kristiansen.

Adamo's libretto for the opera takes key moments from the novel, John Brooke's (Harry Thatcher) wooing of Meg (Kitty Whately), Jo's (Charlotte Badham) bad reaction to this, the wedding and Laurie's (Frederick Jones) declaration of love to Jo, her subsequent move to New York and meeting with Frederick Bhaer (Benson Wilson), the beginnings of romance between Laurie (Jones) and Amy (Elizabeth Karani), and Beth's (Harriet Eyley) death. 

Mark Adamo: Little Women - Kitty Whately, Elizabeth Karani, Charlotte Badham, Harriet Eyley - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)
Mark Adamo: Little Women - Kitty Whately, Elizabeth Karani, Charlotte Badham, Harriet Eyley - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)

But this is projected in the context of Jo in the present day, and as she looks back she comes to terms with life, understanding that happiness is transient. At the opening, with the present day Laurie in the attic, Jo repeatedly emphasises their happiness then, but at the end Adamo creates a magical quartet for Jo and her sisters, as Jo comes to terms with life and bids farewell to childhood. The opera could easily have ended then, but there was a tiny final scene, Benson Wilson's Friderich Bhaer appears, he just happened to have business in the area if Jo wasn't busy. She welcomes him, commenting that the only time we have is now. Curtain.

For the opening and other scenes, Adamo has created four extra vocal parts intended to represent the ghosts of Jo's sisters that are ever present for her (here played by Christine Byrne, Beth Moxon, Naomi Rogers and Daniella Sicara), but here they were present on-stage in modern dress (colour coded so that we knew which sister was which), suggesting how the sisters become everywoman. Designedr Madeleine Boyd leveraged the need to work round takis designs for the Delius/Puccini double bill by creating a series of four picture frames, the largest framing the March's house and each frame occupied by one of the ghost, but also become the parallel sister's space. It was a device that took some time to work, you wondered who these people were but gradually it settled into a rhythm. 

The writing in the opera is very much multi-layered, not only are there the ghosts and the 'real' sisters, who have moments when they all sing together, but the forestage was Jo's writing place and there were a number of highly effective scenes with Charlotte Badham's Jo busy writing and commenting on the family scene happening on the main stage. At the beginning of Act Two, Adamo successfully moved events on quickly via a terrific ensemble where Badham's Jo (in New York) exchanges letters with her family. One of the virtues of Marchment's production was the way she brought strong theatrical imagination to the work and created complex dramaturgical moments that were transparently obvious in the theatre. You knew who was who and what was what, despite the multi-layered action.

Mark Adamo: Little Women - Harry Thatcher, Kitty Whately - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)
Mark Adamo: Little Women - Harry Thatcher, Kitty Whately - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)

Whilst the opera is technically about sisterhood, it was Charlotte Badham's Jo that bore the weight of the piece. Badham was an almost constant presence, both as a sister and as the authorial voice. Badham successfully created the sense of Jo's dissatisfaction and restlessness, combined with her need to rest in the security of the past. Badham's Jo wasn't a sweet-tempered girl, she could be sharp and angry, and throughout Badham projected Jo's essential independence of mind. It was a towering performance, so many notes to learn, yet the result was consummately engaging.

Each of the sisters gets their moment. Kitty Whately's Meg was demure but strong willed in her wooing by Harry Thatcher's eager John Brooke. Whately brought a lovely warmth to Meg, as well as giving the girl a feeling of the strong character that lay underneath. There was something youthful and puppyish about Thatcher's John Brooke and the two made a delightful couple. Elizabeth Karani's Amy was somewhat in the sidelight for Act One, quiet yet determined, and she had her moment in Act Two when she and Frederick Jones' Laurie go on a picnic and reach an understanding. As Beth, Harriet Eyley had the work's tragic moment, the death scene. Before that, Eyley was often behind the piano, and was thoughtful constant present. The death scene with Jo can be a moment of gloopy sentimentality in any adaptation of Little Women, but here Eyley, Badham and Marchment successfully avoided the worst and made it movingly touching. 

As Laurie, Frederick Jones successfully projected the characters awkward transition from being bosom childhood companion to suitor, and made you believe his transferring of affection from Jo to Amy was genuine, and right. Benson Wilson's Friedrich Bhaer has an underlying solidity to him which partly explained Jo's attraction, and Wilson was very fine indeed in the striking moment when Bhaer reads Jo a Goethe poem ('Kennst du das Land') first in German and then in English, with Adamo using the same varied setting for each.

Mark Adamo: Little Women - Frederick Jones, Charlotte Badham - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)
Mark Adamo: Little Women - Frederick Jones, Charlotte Badham - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)

Somewhat on the sidelines but blessed with a couple of scene-stealing moments was Lucy Schaufer's Aunt March. Schaufer was heavily involved in the production, as she was also the Artist Producer (she was in the premiere of Adamo's 2015 opera Becoming Santa Claus at Dallas Opera). Schaufer was brilliant as the well-off, cigar smoking Aunt, determined to use her wealth to control her nieces. The roles of the girls' parents are important ones, constant presences though they only get a short solo moment as they sing a Walt Whitmann setting round the parlour piano. Victoria Simmonds and Nicholas Garrett played them with immense sympathy and discretion. Dragos Andrei Ionel was Dashwood, the magazine editor to whom Jo starts selling her stories, a strong cameo.

Adamo's style sits somewhere between Sondheim and 20th century American classics such as Carlisle Floyd. The orchestral writing was a lot more complex than the Sondheim model, yet the articulation of the text often owed something so that moments of Sondheim-esque dialogue would flower into more complex lyrical moments, and whilst ostensibly tonal the work has all sorts of interesting harmonic corners and crunch bits. The work was not without sentimentality, but the direction and the performances at Opera Holland Park kept this within check so that there was a clarity and wryness to the performance.

The acoustics at Opera Holland Park did not really favour the dialogue-heavy scenes, particularly in Act One, and though the cast worked hard we were rather reliant on the surtitles for detail.

In the pit, Sian Edwards and the City of London Sinfonia had a terrific time with Adamo's imaginative orchestrations, there was nothing reticent about the instrumental writing and the evening was full of some striking moments. The orchestra was small-ish, just single woodwind and horn with no other brass, yet two percussion, harp and a player doubling piano, celeste and synthesizer to magical effect.

Friday night's audience (near capacity I think) was highly enthusiastic and rightly so. The cast all brought an appealing directness to the performance, we were really rooting not just for the sisters but the whole family. The ending, with its magical quartet was beautifully done and in Badham, Whately, Eyley and Karani, Marchment had a finely balanced quartet of sisters, each a character yet combining into a single entity at times.

Mark Adamo: Little Women - Kitty Whately, Elizabeth Karani, Harriet Eyley, Frederick Jones, Charlotte Badham - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)
Mark Adamo: Little Women - Kitty Whately, Elizabeth Karani, Harriet Eyley, Frederick Jones, Charlotte Badham - Opera Holland Park  (Photo Ali Wright)

I have to confess that I last read Alcott's novel some 40 or so years ago and have only hazy remembrances of it. Adamo's skill has been to create an operatic entity which has the power to engage the opera novice as well as the cynical old hands like myself. Opera Holland Park are doing just six performances in total, so I do hope that this production and this cast get further opportunities as you feel that could be a significant market for Adamo's approachably syncretic music.

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