Anna Picard introduces the four operas in the 2021 Season
A marriage on the rocks, a wedding in peril, and a riot of teenage hormones. Despite the specificity of time and place, the references to droit de seigneur and smelling salts, and the tang of revolution in the air, Le nozze di Figaro has never grown stale or fallen out of fashion. Perhaps because the trials of love, lust, infatuation, infidelity, jealousy and reconciliation are so familiar.
In the course of a single hectic day on Count Almaviva’s estate, Aguas Frescas, three couples are united or reunited in marriage, while a fourth pairing is hinted between Cherubino and Barbarina, the youngest members of the household. Privacy is in short supply. Three quarters of the opera plays out indoors, where the Count’s attention is focused on the female staff rather than his wife, and where Figaro, the foundling and bridegroom, discovers the identity of his parents. His wedding becomes a double wedding with their reunion, and with the prick of a pin that seals a letter, a plot is hatched. The invitation to an assignation beneath the pine trees, as composed by Susanna and the Countess in their duet, the ‘canzonetta sull’aria’, is a trap for the Count.
Delicious as the intricacy of Mozart and Da Ponte’s comedy of war between the sexes and the classes is, something more potent than that is the engine of Act IV: nature. In leaving the house for the garden at night fall, discarding the master-servant protocols and, in the case of Susanna and the Countess, disguising themselves as each other, the central characters of Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera are at last made equals. No one is immune to jealousy, not even Figaro or Susanna, whose loveliest music is found in a false serenade to an unwanted lover.
When the Count is finally forced to beg forgiveness, and the Countess obliges, time stands still for a moment, sweetly suspended in the clement key of G, until the wedding celebrations resume with a busy, joyful D major finale. Order, of a sort, has been restored. Happy ever after may be elusive. (Read Beaumarchais’s La mère coupable to learn how badly things end for the Almavivas in the next episode of the Figaro trilogy.) But happy for now is a good place to be on a summer’s night, with the scent of greenery all around, and the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze.
It is striking that of the four works in Opera Holland Park’s 2021 season only one has an urban setting. La traviata is Parisian to its core, a fierce critique of conventional morality played out in the French capital’s hedonistic demimonde. Verdi’s opera is as much an exercise in realism as it is a romance. Two forms of consumption drive the tragedy: the pulmonary tuberculosis from which Violetta Valéry is in remission when we first meet her, and the conspicuous consumption involved in maintaining her position as the most celebrated courtesan of her age.
Champagne, cut flowers, high fashion, gambling, dining and dancing come at a price, whether funded by entertaining a consortium of lovers or a single, extremely wealthy benefactor. So, alas, does happiness. Violetta abandons her apartment, her friends, her profession. After three short months in the country with Alfredo, ‘revived by the breath of love’, her money runs out. Verdi’s music reminds us that the city does not care, that its appetite for distraction and luxury is unstoppable. Even as Violetta lies dying back in Paris, longing for Alfredo’s return, the hedonism continues outside on the streets, a raucous mardi gras chorus.
Rich in musical charm, if slender in plot, and set amid the vineyards and orchards of Alsace, L’amico Fritz is another opera in which nature plays a critical role. Suzel’s gift of a bunch of violets (not poisonous, as in Cilea’s cod-baroque melodrama, Adriana Lecouvreur) is the first signal that Rabbi David’s choice of bride for his bachelor friend, Fritz, is the right one, despite their age gap. Fritz is moved by Suzel’s gesture, but remains reticent until David devises a scheme in which to bring the lovers together. Mascagni’s fragrant, breezy writing blossoms into something warmer and richer in the ‘Cherry Duet’ between Fritz and Suzel. A happy ending is assured.
The greenest and wildest of the four operas in the 2021 Season is The Cunning Little Vixen. Here, two sets of characters, one human, the other a cast of animals and insects, live, love, grow up and grow older as the seasons change in the Moravian forest. Chief among the human characters is the Forester, who first sees Vixen Sharp-Ears when she is a cub and wants her for a pet. Any hope of taming her is quickly lost. Teased by the Forester’s children, she dodges the attentions of a lustful dog, radicalises the chickens, humiliates the cock and escapes to the forest.
It is here that she meets Golden Mane, the fox. If Vixen’s soliloquy, ‘Am I then so lovely?’, is one of the most exquisite musical depictions of the moment in which cubhood (or girlhood) is left behind, obliterated by the dazzle of first love, Golden Mane’s later question, ‘Remind me, how many children do we have?’ is one of the funniest in opera’s rare portrayals of a happy marriage.
Janáček was too wise an observer of nature to sentimentalise his animal characters but he did make them loveable, real, recognisable. And in Vixen’s short lifespan she tastes freedom, companionship and happiness that eludes the Forester, the Schoolmaster and the Parson. Perhaps Figaro’s mother, Marcellina, is right in Act IV of Le nozze di Figaro when she observes that goats, sheep and the fiercest animals in the forest are kinder to their mates than most husbands are to their wives.
Booking dates for the 2021 Season will be announced soon. Check back to this page for more information.