All is not lost: there is a decent, devoted young woman in the village who will marry him instead, Vivetta, primped and primed for the altar by Federico's mother. Her other son is a slow developer, and Rosa Mamai is banking on one sound marriage in the family to keep her in her old age.
Federico (Samuel Sakker) reads incriminating letters. Photo: Ali Wright
The marvel of this production, directed by Oliver Platt and conducted by Dane Lam, is that the slight and slow-moving events of a simple community rattle along at breakneck speed, hurtling to inevitable disaster. Cilea's score drives like a runaway cart beneath the alternately prim and relaxed rural scenes.
Designer Alyson Cummins picks up this sense of impending catastrophe in her set, the 19th-century action brought into the 20th century. Around the crumbling masonry of this 1940s village – ostensibly in France but for all the world like a Sicilian backwater – agricultural and domestic bric-à-brac is bundled in piles that look ready to fall and crush at any moment. As Federico picks his way through poles and obstacles, ultimately he will break free of this suffocating clutter, but in a terrible way....
A cast totally immersed in this alien world is led by three rock-solid performances. As Rosa Mamai, Yvonne Howard is powerful and moving, her lavish mezzo revealing the genetic source of son Federico's passionate nature. Federico himself is sung by Samuel Sakker, a tenor in the Italian tradition. If he is little stolid for such an ambitious character, this certainly explains the waning interest of the woman from Arles.
Fflur Wyn, outstanding as Vivetta, consoles Federico (Samuel Sakker). Photo: Ali Wright
Listen out for Federico's aria 'È la solita storia del pastore' and for Rosa Mamai's heartfelt 'Esser madre è un inferno' – 'motherhood is hell'!
The revelation of the evening is soprano Fflur Wyn, an OHP regular who always delights with her easy presence and crystal-clear voice, but as Vivetta she unveils a richness that makes us doubly frustrated with the dolt who cannot see from the start how happy he could be with her. Shining, arching phrasing ends in a high diminuendo – a note that shrinks in mid-air so that we want to reach out and catch her, lest she fall. Listen out for her next role here at Opera Holland Park, and elsewhere.
In smaller roles, there was some idiosyncratic intonation from Keel Watson as the village elder Baldassare, Simon Wilding turns in a suitably unappealing performance as the sneak Metifio and James Cleverton, conversely, briefly raises hopes as Marco, giving the marriage the thumbs-up. Samantha Price is the little brother, L'Innocente, growing up fast.
Yvonne Howard sings the distraught Rosa Mamai. Photo: Ali Wright
Vigorous playing by the City of London Sinfonietta, with lovely woodwind, and the customarily musical interventions of the fleet-of-foot Opera Holland Park Chorus complete a well-rounded production that, in the developing tradition of OHP, puts a rarely performed Italian opera back on the map, where it belongs.
'L'Arlesiana' is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances on 25, 27, 31 July; 2 Aug. In a pre-performance talk at 5:45PM on Thurs 25 July, Dr Alexandra Wilson talks to Anna Picard about Cilea and his Italian contemporaries, the mould-breaking 'giovane scuola'
|What||L'Arlesiana, Opera Holland Park review|
|Where||Opera Holland Park, Stable Yard, Holland Park, London , W8 6LU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||High Street Kensington (underground)|
20 Jul 19 – 02 Aug 19, five performances
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|