One by one the country-house opera companies are getting into gear. This week Garsington Opera opens its beautiful glass box on the Getty estate at Wormsley, in the Chilterns, while Opera Holland Park (OHP) kicks off at its Jacobean home in central London. And OHP, where artistic standards are very high, deserves plaudits.
It’s an independent company with private donors but no public funding, so the Arts Council’s idiotic cuts haven’t affected it. And since its creation in 1996 it has gradually transformed its windswept space into something which both keeps the elements at bay, and allows the sound to be properly heard. But its long ribbon of a stage, now with an extension into the auditorium, is still testing designers to the limit.
And it has to be said that Neil Irish, the designer for Rigoletto who last year did a fine Don Giovanni, has this time flunked that test. Verdi’s opera concerns court corruption in 16th century Mantua: its central figure, the court jester, is condemned for speaking out, and his daughter is murdered. Irish’s ducal palace resembles a cluttered building site with bookshelves scattered about; the riverside tavern where the squalid denouement takes place is a pathetically unconvincing attempt at an English pub.
Director Cecilia Stinton has set the action in a simulacrum of the Bullingdon Club in the 1920s, with Allessandro Scotto di Luzio’s Duke of Mantua as a professor, and his heavies transformed into “town and gown” figures. The hired assassin Sparafucile (Simon Wilding) becomes a waiter, and a brutal student initiation rite sets the tone. A decision to merge crudely recorded sound with live singing in the opening scene disorients the ears to no discernible purpose.
But once the drama gets going, things look up. When Alison Langer’s Gilda makes her appearance, she seems desperately gauche and in total thrall to her father Rigoletto (Stephen Gadd). But when she begins to sing she holds us in thrall, with a gorgeously floated high register and a pianissimo to break the heart; Gadd’s sound, stentorian while he’s riding high, has a wounded nobility which haunts the evening, and the father-and-daughter duets evoke real pity. Di Luzio’s bel canto has power and sometimes beauty, but his tendency to sing below the note doesn’t help.
In all other respects the musical standards are high, with the City of London Sinfonia and the OHP Chorus under the direction of Lee Reynolds, and with the great quartet in the storm scene resonating with baleful clarity. Not all Stinton’s interventions work – her direction clumsily manages to muzzle Rigoletto’s horror when he discovers Gilda has been abducted – but her thrilling alternative to the conventional resolution of the final scene is a brilliant coup. This production may trade too heavily on frocks, hair-dos, and general youthful horseplay, but musically and dramatically it richly honours Verdi’s masterpiece.
To 24 June; www.operahollandpark.com