Friday 22 July 2022

Operatic rarities in a striking double bill at Opera Holland Park

Delius: Margot la Rouge - Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Delius: Margot la Rouge - Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)

Delius: Margot la Rouge, Puccini: Le Villi; Anne Sophie Duprels, Samuel Sakker, Paul Carey Jones, Sara Minns, Peter Auty, Stephen Gadd, director Martin Lloyd-Evans, City of London Sinfonia, conductor Francesco Cilluffo; Opera Holland Park
21 July 2022 (★★★★½)

An enterprising and well worthwhile double bill that combined two apparently disparate operas by Delius and Puccini which have a shared history, and both give us an intriguing new view of their composers

Opera Holland Park's intriguing new double bill was planned originally for 2020, and finally hit the stage last night (21 July 2022) featuring Delius' Margot la Rouge and Puccini's Le Villi, two works which seem at first sight rather disparate. Both are comparatively early works, Delius' opera (his fifth), comes after A Village Romeo and Juliet but before Appalachia, Sea Drift and A Mass of Life, whilst Puccini's work was his very first opera. 

What the two have in common, surprisingly, is that they were both unsuccessful entries in the opera competitions organised by the Italian publishing house of Sonzogno (which gave us Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana). And neither opera is quite what you might expect.

At Opera Holland Park, Delius' Margot la Rouge and Puccini's Le Villi were directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, designed by takis and Francesco Cilluffo conducted the City of London Sinfonia. Anne Sophie Duprels sang the title role in Margot la Rouge and Anna in Le Villi. Margot la Rouge also featured Samuel Sakker, Paul Carey Jones, Sarah Minns and Laura Lolita Peresivana. Le Villi also featured Peter Auty and Stephen Gadd.

Puccini: Le Villi - Anne Sophie Duprels, Peter Auty - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Puccini: Le Villi - Anne Sophie Duprels, Peter Auty - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)

Delius wrote Margot la Rouge specifically for the fourth and final Sonzogno competition in 1901, hoping to win the substantial prize. Instead the opera was not even commended and it languished, only being premiered in 1983. It is rather an extravagant work, quite short but with 18 sung roles (no chorus). Delius set an original French libretto by Rosenval (nom de plume of Berthe Gaston-Danville) that described the goings on in a bar in the rough part of Paris, a bar frequented by prostitutes when they were not out plying their trade. Lili Beguin (Sarah Minns) is jealous because her lover, L'Artiste (Paul Carey Jones) has taken up with another girl, Margot (Anne Sophie Duprels). Three soldiers come in to shelter from the rain and Sergeant Thibault (Samuel Sakker) recognises Margot as his childhood sweetheart, the two have a big love duet and plan to leave together but the arrival of L'Artiste brings the opera to a tragic conclusion.

The piece is very much in the 'shabby little shocker' tradition. None of the roles is exactly huge and eight of them were supplied by members of the Opera Holland Park chorus. Though Margot is on stage for around two thirds of the opera, she does not sing a lot as her character is somewhat quiet and surly, she is not someone well-liked and is prickly to all approaches. The centre piece of the work is the big duet for Margot and Thibault.

Delius: Margot la Rouge - Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Delius: Margot la Rouge - Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)

Delius' music for the work's orchestral prelude seemed to belie this setting, gorgeous, sophisticated and rather French-inspired, and throughout the work the orchestra seemed to exist at one remove from the drama and the visceral nature of the plot. The vocal writing, however, was much more robust and direct, seeming to exist in a different world to the orchestra. Unlike composers of the Verismo school in Italy, Delius did not use short memorable motivic phrases in his vocal writing and as a result much of it seemed, on first listen, to be expressive but ultimately not very memorable.

Martin Lloyd-Evans' productions linked the two operas to a certain extent. Both used the same set by takis, a wooden house which could be turned round to create an intimate interior, and both operas began with the same tableau, Anne Sophie Duprels as Margot/Anna with her father (Stephen Gadd). The whole of the action of Margot la Rouge took place within the bar inside the confines of the wooden hut. This successfully placed it in a confined space, but rather seemed to keep it at one remove from the audience and in a way the work might have had more impact if Lloyd-Evans had traded naturalism for directness and brought the singers forward onto the forestage.

All concerned gave a strong performance, giving the work its all and all the smaller roles were each brilliantly articulated so that the tragic series of love triangles between Lili, L'Artiste, Margot, Thibault were set against a vividly created backdrop. As Margot and Thibault, Duprels and Sakker seemed to be able to make the relationship simmer despite an interchange that was at times telegraphic, whilst Carey Jones erupted brilliantly as the violent pimp, L'Artiste, and Simms was a finely sulky presence for much of the opera.

Puccini: Le Villi - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Puccini: Le Villi - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)

In the pit, Cilluffo and the orchestra (playing Andreas Luca Beraldo's orchestral reduction) gave a sophisticated, seductive quality to Delius' orchestral writing that provided a layer of remarkable sophistication to the drama. But I have to confess that I found the work an interesting curiosity rather than a major discovery.

If, in Margot la Rouge, Delius set a libretto that seemed to tell the sort of story that would attract the mature Puccini, for his first opera the young Puccini created a work that was far more abstract and shied away from realism. Puccini was still a student when he wrote the opera and was introduced to the librettist, Ferdinando Fontana, by his teacher Ponchielli (both Ponchielli and Fontana had links to the Scapigliatura movement). Despite Ponchielli being on the Sonzogno competition jury (or perhaps because of this) Puccini's opera was disqualified because it was 'illegible'. It was Fontana who gained support to put on a performance, which attracted the attention of the publishing house Ricordi. The result, for Puccini, was a contract and ongoing support from Ricordi.

Ferdinando Fontana's libretto for Le Villi provided a series of tableaux which were linked via orchestral and dance episodes plus linking spoken narrative (here delivered by Stephen Gadd), the characters seen as a series of striking incidents rather than a single interrelated narrative. Yes, there are gorgeous solo scenes for each of the characters, but there is also a storm scene,  and that danced finale as the 'Le Villi' (Duprels and the dancers, Fern Grimbley, Isabel Le Cras, Gabriella Schmidt) dance Roberto (Peter Auty) to death. Dance and movement played a big role in the whole production (the movement director was Jami Reid-Quarrell), we even began with a celebratory chorus for Anna and Roberto's betrothal in which chorus and the principals all danced.

Delius: Margot la Rouge - Samuel Sakker, Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Delius: Margot la Rouge - Samuel Sakker, Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)

The strength of the casting was in the way each principal, Anne Sophie Duprels as Anna, Peter Auty as Roberto and Stephen Gadd as Guglielmo, Anna's father, were able to do justice to Puccini's glorious vocal lines and make the relatively slight material coalesce into something strikingly dramatic. Unlike Puccini's later operas, this was not primarily about aria, chorus and operatic dialogue, but was something more abstract and it was a testament to the style and confidence of Lloyd-Evans production that this work seemed to fill the stage, creating not just striking images but some remarkable drama.

The chorus was in strong form, vigorous in their contribution and combining it with plenty of engaging dancing. Cilluffo and the orchestra brought out the richness of Puccini's score (playing Andreas Luca Beraldo's orchestral reduction) and showed us why some contemporary critics complained that the opera was too symphonic.

Puccini: Le Villi - Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)
Puccini: Le Villi - Anne Sophie Duprels - Opera Holland Park 2022 (Photo: Ali Wright)

I am not entirely sure whether Le Villi would make a repertory piece, but this production certain demonstrated the richness of the young Puccini's imagination and his willingness to experiment.

This was a remarkable evening, Opera Holland Park at its best, combining exploration of the nether regions of the repertoire with a strength of casting that brought each piece to vivid life. And I must put in a final word of commendation to Francesco Cilluffo and the City of London Sinfonia for the superb negotiation of two very different orchestral idioms. 

Delius - Margot la Rouge

Anne Sophie Duprels - Margot, Samuel Sakker - Sergeant Thibault, Paul Carey Jones - L’Artiste, Sarah Minns - Lili Béguin, Laura Lolita Perešivana - Nini, Laura Woods - La Patronne, George von Bergen - First Soldier, Jack Holton - La Poigne, Alistair Sutherland - Second Soldier, David Woloszko - Totor, Grace Nyandoro - First Woman, Alys Roberts - Second Woman, Chloë Pardoe - Third Woman, Sean Webster - First Drinker, Matthew Duncan - Second Drinker, Peter Lidbetter - Third Drinker/A Man, Richard Moore - Waiter, Dragoş Andrei Ionel - Police Inspector,

Puccini - Le Villi

Anne Sophie Duprels - Anna, Peter Auty - Roberto, Stephen Gadd - Guglielmo
Dancers - Fern Grimbley, Isabel Le Cras, Gabriella Schmidt

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