Opera Holland Park's new 1,000 seat canopy is the second-best thing to have happened to this plucky company. The first was Raymond Gubbay, who poached its so-so pit-band, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, for the short-lived Savoy Opera, forcing Holland Park to forge a new alliance with the City of London Sinfonia. Under an efficient conductor, their playing is stylish, secure, and warmly blended. Under Stuart Stratford, it is - with the exception of one stray note from a trumpeter who was clearly expecting a broader approach to the final bars of Jenufa - utterly thrilling.
Stratford's Jenufa is powerfully argued: brutal, searing and caustic, meticulously accented, abrupt, yet softening into the sad, slow intimacy that is, as much as rage, the subject of this opera. We've been spoilt for good Janácek in the past few years, yet this is the first Jenufa I have heard that has had such a sharply defined Janus face, looking back to Dvorák and forward to Bartók. Perhaps inevitably, Stratford's reading seems darker and stronger than that of director Olivia Fuchs, whose most persuasive and perceptive ideas in what is ostensibly a careful and conservative production, are to be found in the small differences of behaviour between those who are conscious that they are being observed and those who are not.
I could happily devote a paragraph to Fuchs's chorus direction, but that would mean short-changing the principals. Though few of the minor roles are as characterfully executed as Hannah Pedley's passionate Kolusina or Jonathan Best's watchful Foreman, the central quartet of Anne Sophie Duprels (Jenufa), Aldo di Toro (Steva), Tom Randle (Laca), and Anne Mason (Kostelnicka) is wonderfully balanced. Duprel's gorgeous sound belies an unusually brittle, impetuous characterisation: cruel to, rather than careless of, Laca, and perhaps too quickly forgiving of him and her step-mother. Randle's alert, awkward Laca is touchingly realised, di Toro's Steva every inch the weak, handsome, bewildered child-man. As to Mason, her Kostelnicka is a masterpiece: gloriously sung, thoroughly thought out, racked with pain, frustration and guilt, riveting to watch.
John Fulljames's audacious staging of Nabucco, also designed by Yannis Thavoris and Giuseppe di Iorio, is unlikely to please those who thought Richard Jones's Macbeth flippant. The overture's graveyard of battered suitcases is familiar enough. But just when you think you're in Lodz, along comes the Babylon Circus Troupe, with a bunch of vicious, combat-ready clowns, and Nabucco (David Wakeman) dressed in a lion suit, on a push-along scooter. Much as many assimilated European Jews dismissed Hitler's torchlit rallies as cheap showmanship, one's first impulse is to laugh. But absurdist as Fulljames's imagery is, the sight of these clowns bullying the terrified Hebrew slaves into a cage is more unsettling than the Holocaust imagery that has been cheapened in previous productions of this and other works.
Though Maria Pollicino's loose-cannon chest-voice and leopard-skin pantaloons undermine her Abigaille, Wakeman's transition from despot to convert is deeply felt. Squeezed into a magician's assistant tutu and dragging behind Brad Cohen's swiftish beat, Kristina Hammarström's Fenena remains anonymous, but Andrew Rees's Ismaele and Paolo Pecchioli's Zaccaria have authority and passion. In the minor roles of High Priest and Anna, Simon Wilding and Laura Hudson sing well and act superbly, as does the Holland Park chorus. Some will call this Nabucco trite, even offensive, but Fulljames's use of the wide stage is as assured as his concept is provocative. For those who love Verdi's music but hate this production, the exquisite playing of the cellists Joely Koos, Rachel van der Tang and David Burrowes will soften the blow of listening with one's eyes tightly shut.
Scattered about with exotic tents, and decorated with more fairy-lights than a pre-teen princess's bedroom, Grange Park Opera is the hand-beaded designer kaftan to Holland Park's jeans and trainers. Now celebrating its 10th summer season, the company has worked hard to compete with its older sisters in London, Oxfordshire and Sussex. The air is plump with optimism, and new chandeliers sparkle in the theatre. But programming rarities in a ravishing setting is as risky as setting Nabucco in a circus ring.
Clumsily adapted from Dostoyevsky, Prokofiev's The Gambler is a one-note fright. Barring Babulenka (Carol Rowlands), the aged aunt whose spree in the casino ruins her already bankrupt family, every character is an hysteric, every line a yelp of exasperation. Despite director David Fielding's fabulously warped interiors, and conductor André de Ridder's valiant attempts to carve subtler distinctions of colour from an ungrateful score, this garish hangover from The Fiery Angel is a dramaturgical disaster - taking two acts to set up a situation which a more skilled composer would establish in 20 minutes, then blowing the narrative tension with a final scene in which the largely unexplained relationship between Alexei (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) and Pauline (Katherine Rohrer) is repeatedly cemented then demolished. Strong performances from Rowlands, Rohrer, and Doreen Curran (as the gold-digging Blanche) do little to redeem a rightly forgotten work. Making its Grange Park debut, the Orchestra of St John's sounds shocked by the technical demands of the score.
'Jenufa'/'Nabucco' (0845 230 9769) to 22/23 Jun; 'The Gambler' (01962 868 8888) to 16 Jun
Further reading The definitive 'Janácek: Years of a Life Vol I', by John Tyrrell (Faber)Reuse content