Alfredo Catalani’s rarely performed opera “La Wally” (1892) ends with an avalanche killing the hero and the distraught heroine flinging herself into a snowy abyss. It’s the sort of thing that drives directors mad.
The staging problems don’t deter Opera Holland Park in London. Building on a reputation for unearthing forgotten gems, the summer production is a barnstorming hit.
It tells the story of a wild mountain girl called Wally (short for Wallburga). She falls for a testosterone-fueled huntsman called Hagenbach. When he mocks her love, she orders her baritone admirer Gellner to push him down a ravine. She then relents, dramatically rescues him, and they fall in love -- just in time for the avalanche to make them go splat.
It has everything you want from a 19th-century opera. There are hyper-emotional big tunes (the main aria was made famous by the 1981 film “Diva”), rousing hunting choruses, and just the right amount of entertaining implausibility.
All that, and an avalanche too.
Designer Jamie Vartan does a great job on a small budget with a symbolic white cloth, which is pulled up by ropes into peaks. It hangs vertically for the avalanche, and pulls apart to swallow the heroine for her death plunge. Very neat.
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers sings up a storm as Wally. Her voice is ample and juicy, yet she can float a quiet top note and shape her phrases with real delicacy. There’s more vulnerability in her voice than her acting, which is OK. No matter. Her vocal talents are so thrilling that she deserves the cheers and foot-stamps she receives from the audience.
There’s great support too from Adrian Dwyer as the swaggering huntsman tenor, and Stephen Gadd as the murderous baritone. Hungarian soprano Alinka Kozari provides a memorable coloratura turn as Walter, a callow youth in love with Wally.
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans keeps the racy plot moving, and tells the narrative clearly. Even so, there are some crudities in the staging. Wally’s father hits his daughter in the face and beats her with a belt, for example. Aren’t there more subtle ways to show just how evil and tyrannical he is?
She seems to forget about the aches and bruises immediately after they’ve been inflicted. Lucky her.
Conductor Peter Robinson gets the fiery City of London Sinfonia to produce big swoops and swirls of romantic color. If there are a couple of lapses of ensemble, no doubt they’ll be ironed out as the run progresses.
It’s an avalanche of pleasure. Rating: ***.
The production runs in tandem with Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” set in a dingy Mafia-controlled container port. In the opening party scene, female dancers writhe provocatively with their wrists tied above their heads. The men on stage get excited.
In the final scene, Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda is found in a sack hanging in a similar fashion from a meat hook in a refrigerated warehouse. It’s a sharp feminist twist in Lindsay Posner’s staging of the 1851 opera. In a world where women are treated as meat and objects for barter, it’s shocking to see the ultimate results.
Julia Sporsen is a terrific Gilda. She sings well, and conveys a fascinating half-scared, half-loving relationship with her father.
Robert Poulton has all the chops for the title role, combining a great voice and stage presence. His Rigoletto is maniacal and selfish, yet capable of tenderness and longing.
Jaewoo Kim doesn’t bring the same panache to the role of the Duke, and his voice sounds closed and narrow at the top of its range. There are also a few wrinkles of logic in the production. It’s hard to accept that the wealthy Count Ceprano would live in the same kind of corrugated container inhabited by the lowly Rigoletto.
Never mind. With Stuart Stratford’s suave and dramatic conducting, it mostly hits the mark. Rating: ***.
The same can’t be said of “A Woman Killed with Kindness” at the National Theatre. Thomas Heywood’s 1607 domestic tragedy is given some lavish sets (designs by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer) and not much else.
The play tells two separate stories. One is about Anne (Liz White), a woman who has an affair with her husband’s protege, Wendoll (Sebastian Armesto). The other is about a nobleman (Leo Bill) who barters his loyal sister (Sandy McDade) in marriage to pay off his debts.
Director Katie Mitchell updates the work to 1919, and places it on two realistic split-level sets next to each other. One is a grand suburban villa, the other the entrance hall of a decaying stately home.
Servants scuttle up and down stairs. Tablecloths are shaken. Flowers re-arranged. Life continues in one half of the set while the main action takes place in the other.
It’s enjoyably busy. It also has as much juice and steam as an old bus ticket.
Actions and gestures are cool and stylized, sometimes robotic, and there’s little sexual heat. In a play about adultery and a simmering claustrophobic brother-sister relationship this seems counterintuitive, and it makes the piece feel curiously cold.
The actors do a good job, especially Paul Ready as Anne’s husband John, and Bill as the neurotic Sir Charles. Yet overall, their work doesn’t help raise the thermometer. Rating: **.
“La Wally” and “Rigoletto” run in tandem at Opera Holland Park, sponsored by Investec Wealth & Investment, through Aug. 13. Information: http://www.operahollandpark.com or +44-300-999-1000.
“A Woman Killed With Kindness” is in repertory at the National Theatre, and is part of the Travelex 12 pound tickets program. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars)Worthless
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)