wed 02/12/2020

The Encore, Opera Holland Park review - stylish return for a squad of old friends | reviews, news & interviews

The Encore, Opera Holland Park review - stylish return for a squad of old friends

The Encore, Opera Holland Park review - stylish return for a squad of old friends

A moving and delightful al fresco feast of opera favourites

Cafe Momus at Holland Park House: Anush Hovhannisyan sings Musetta's Waltz Song, with OHP regular Matthew Kofi Waldren conductingAll images by Ali Wright for OHP

As Dvořák’s "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka rose to its impassioned climax, Natalya Romaniw had to battle a helicopter thumping overhead. The helicopter lost (well, of course it did).

As Dvořák’s "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka rose to its impassioned climax, Natalya Romaniw had to battle a helicopter thumping overhead. The helicopter lost (well, of course it did). As Nardus Williams and David Butt Phillip disappeared into the wings after a heart-rending "O soave fanciulla" from La Bohème, a squirrel scampered centre-stage to fill the dramatic vacuum. Anna Patalong and Ross Ramgobin’s wistful COVID-era take on "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni (pictured below) made sure that fingers never touched, but lent a previously unknown erotic frisson to a bottle of hand sanitiser. Now there was a duet that really – er – gelled.

Throughout, squawking parakeets (in the sky) and raucous kids (in the park) chipped in with their – sometimes oddly euphonious – contributions. And, as the hazy, muggy heat of the Kensington afternoon softened into evening, golden sunshine broke through just as Alison Langer nailed "If I Loved You" from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. I can’t have been alone in hoping that we might also have enjoyed a blast of the same work’s showstopper. Because, for musicians and audiences alike, Opera Holland Park’s two evenings of outdoor comeback concerts – with 200 punters spread around the courtyard in front of the Jacobean remnants of Holland House – have shown that, even in pandemic times, you’ll never walk alone.These concerts, on the weekend that marked the finale of OHP’s abandoned summer season, would have moved and inspired in any case. For me, it meant the first live gig in five months; other audience members had longer absences to report. But Saturday’s programme, entitled “The Encore” and made up of 20 favourite arias and duets sung with terrific, mike-free spirit and commitment by 14 singers, reached another milestone beyond the sheer relief – and delight – of hearing voices and instruments in the flesh (and wood) again.

The evening also commemorated the imminent retirement of OHP’s general director, Michael Volpe. Together with music director James Clutton, he has steered the project from its original status, almost a quarter-century ago, as the maverick offshoot of a local authority arts department to a unique, and proudly independent, role in the now-threatened ecology of the British lyric stage. No one else manages the special, improbable fusion of country-house grace and inner-city grit that Volpe and Clutton have brought to OHP. The magnificent, and fund-raising, Verdi Requiem they staged in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire (in which they lost a colleague) represented their mission at its finest. Yesterday, as the show closed, Volpe made a touching farewell speech after the OHP chorus had ringed the audience to serenade him with the "Hymn to the Sun "from Mascagni’s Iris – one of the rarities he has revived at Holland Park alongside more familiar fare. Opera Holland Park's 'The Encore'The unbilled Iris aside, Saturday’s menu offered a high-calorie banquet of one favourite morsel after another. On an ordinary day, all this might have cloyed – as Mein Herr Marquis from Die Fledermaus (Jennifer France) gave way to Caro Nome (Rigoletto, Alison Langer), Dove sono… (Marriage of Figaro, Nardus Williams, pictured below), Libiamo from La Traviata (Lauren Fagen and Samuel Sakker, abetted by a chorus of their colleagues in the wings), E lucevan le stelle (Tosca, Samuel Sakker), Un bel dì (Madama Butterfly, Natalya Romaniw), and so, tunefully and stylishly, on, right through to the inevitable finale: David Butt Philip’s – actually quite restrained and refined – Nessun Dorma. But, in the high summer of our lingering emergency, the effect of these bonbons felt quite different. It was as if OHP’s friends had met to gather a kind of seedbank of beloved moments, to be lodged in some musical ark as testimony to the sounds that had given joy and meaning to a (remarkably broad and diverse) slice of humankind over the past couple of centuries. Corny? Sometimes, maybe. But this was the corn that keeps us alive. 

The magic lay in the ensemble (smartly supported by a nine-strong string band from the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren). And it feels rather pointless, as well as invidious, to pluck out selected cherries from such a niftily mixed cake. Still, it would be a shame not to salute – in addition to the stand-out numbers already mentioned – Aigul Akhmetshina’s suitably sultry and haughty embodiment of Carmen in Bizet’s "Seguidilla" (pictured below), Grant Doyle’s powerfully melancholic account of Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Jennifer France’s poignant and delicate "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel’s Rinaldo, or Anush Hovhannisyan’s splendidly flirtatious waltz song from La Bohème. This year’s OHP Young Artists, Emma Stannard and Jack Roberts, both supplied plentiful evidence of promise in their well-crafted arias from Eugene Onegin. It was gratifying, and uplifting, to see The Encore happen at all. And to enjoy such consistent quality, achieved in the face of fearsome obstacles, spread the icing over a fruit-packed gâteau. We don’t yet know whether these al fresco feasts point to the close of music’s long nightmare, or are just a fitful interruption of our pain. All the more reason, then, to cherish the occasion. “Dove sono,” as Nardus Williams – channelling Mozart’s forsaken Countess – so achingly asked, “i bei momenti/ Di dolcezza e di piacer?”: "Where are those happy moments of sweetness and pleasure"? Just for an evening, at least, the sweetness returned. 

'La ci darem la mano' lent a previously unknown erotic frisson to a bottle of hand sanitiser

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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