La forza del destino, Opera Holland Park, London<br/>Fantastic Mr Fox, Opera Holland Park, London<br/>Proms 10 and 14, Royal Albert Hall, London - Reviews - Classical - The Independent

La forza del destino, Opera Holland Park, London
Fantastic Mr Fox, Opera Holland Park, London
Proms 10 and 14, Royal Albert Hall, London

Suave conducting and searing performances make sense of Verdi's sprawling, brawling opera of ideas

Battered by shame, rage and sorrow, three characters roam war-torn Europe in search of peace, their identities concealed.

From the first brazen shriek of the fate motif and the startled gasp of roiling strings, you know they are doomed. Meanwhile, battles and profits are won and lost, and the poor are chastised and consoled by pedlars of faith, fortune and nylons. This is La forza del destino, Verdi's sprawling, brawling "opera of ideas", relocated to the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath in Martin Duncan's pitch-black production for Opera Holland Park.

La forza del destino is an unholy mess. The plot is littered with unlikely coincidences, the narrative is interrupted by extended sideswipes at church hypocrisy, and the title is misleading. Though the shot that kills the Marquis of Calatrava (Graeme Broadbent) is accidental, the engine of destruction is honour. Honour is what drives Don Carlo (Mark Stone) to avenge his father's death and the alleged deflowering of his sister Leonora (Gweneth-Ann Jeffers) by the mestizo Don Alvaro (Peter Auty), who in turn conceals his royal blood.

Conductor Stuart Stratford's suave, urgent reading of Verdi's overture sets the scene for a production that ricochets between naturalism and exaggeration, held together by a searing performance from the City of London Sinfonia and the chorus. The wide stage has been extended still wider by designer Alison Chitty, with a line of black chairs for the anonymous poor whose sufferings are the backdrop to the crises of the rich. Dressings are minimal (a wooden cross, a vast, crumpled charcoal canvas, a Cornelia Parkeresque explosion), aristocratic Seville, poverty-stricken Honchuelos, shell-blasted Velletri, the cave and monastery of Our Lady of the Angels, all delineated in different groupings of the same furniture.

Duncan's direction of the chorus is confident, most particularly in the transition from the raucous finale of Act III to the desolate opening of Act IV. His individual characterisations are less thorough. Jeffers's Leonora is unstable from the start, a fragile creature whose years of solitude turn "Pace, pace, mio Dio!" into a moonstruck mad-scene. There's grit and shimmer in this ample voice, and she soars magnificently over the chorus. Auty's tone has thickened, though "Urna fatale" is elegantly phrased, but Alvaro seems only to come to life as his lover expires. Stone's intonation is unreliable but he has the measure of this hot-blooded, foolish character. Among the supporting cast, Carole Wilson delivers a nimble Preziosilla, despite being dressed as a pottery teacher from Totnes, and Aled Hall steals the scene as Trabuco. As the misanthropic Fra Melitone, Donald Maxwell relishes every jibe, while Mikhail Svetlov delivers a solid Padre Guardino.

Staged in the woodland behind the theatre, with a half-dozen pianos dotted around the lawn, Stephen Barlow's charming production of Fantastic Mr Fox is an excellent introduction to opera for the children and grandchildren of Holland Park's audience. Tobias Picker's 60-minute, 1998 adaptation takes some liberties with Roald Dahl's subversive story, adding a romantic sub-plot for Miss Hedgehog (Jaimee Marshall) and the Porcupine (Julian Alexander Smith), but the score is such a moreish, citrusy cocktail of Britten, Poulenc, foxtrots and klezmer that it would be churlish to gripe.

Audience participation is restricted to dashing between scenes, cushion in hand, while the violin, viola, cello, clarinet and bassoon follow behind. (My 10-year-old assistant informed me that this was his favourite bit.) In one glade there is Mr Fox's (Grant Doyle) den, in another, the farmhouse where Boggis (Henry Grant Kerswell), Bunce (Peter Kent) and Bean (John Lofthouse) live, cutely and revoltingly characterised in Sean Taylor's designs. Conductor Tim Murray keeps a tidy house, though the outdoors acoustics are variable. The fox cubs' young voices blend sweetly (Bryn Barton, Martha Berkmann, Katie Breslin, Alex Franklin, Hannah Caplan), while Hannah Pedley's dipsomaniac Rat, Olivia Ray's brisk, practical Mrs Fox and Patrick Mundy's eager Mole are outstanding in a lively cast.

Last weekend saw the return of Dr Who to the Royal Albert Hall, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Prom 10). As in 2008, the Radio 3 message boards were hot with harrumphing, though between the Listen Again facility and the BBC2 broadcast of Prom 4, there was plenty of non-Who entertainment around. The difference between music that is composed to accompany moving images (Murray Gold's Battle in the Skies and Pandorica Suite) and music that inspires images in one's own mind (John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Holst's Mars, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries) is clear enough, even to a 10-year-old. But how many performances of Holst, Adams and Wagner are genuinely wriggler-friendly?

Listening to Paavo Jarvi's scalding, dance-informed performances of Beethoven's First and Fifth Symphonies with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (Prom 14) some days later, even I had difficulty keeping still, so infectious and exhilarating was the playing, while Hilary Hahn's ethereal, unadorned, pure-voiced performance of the Violin Concerto seemed to stop time altogether.

'La forza del destino' (0845 230 9769) to 14 Aug; 'Fantastic Mr Fox' (0845 230 9769), to 14 Aug

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