Opera Holland Park continues to venture where most summer companies fear to tread – this season's novelty being L'arlesiana, the third (and second most popular) opera by Francesco Cilea whose 1897 premiere confirmed him as a composer second to few of his generation.
OHP's production of Adriana Lecouvreur was a success through its no-nonsense yet never insensitive delineation of time and place, and Oliver Platt's approach to the present opera is no less adept; utilising a simple while versatile stage-setting, it readily conveys the essentially unchanging rural environs as are shattered by the unfolding tale of sexual intrigue and (self-inflicted) torment. In which context the well-worn rusticity of Alyson Cummins's sets confer a pointedly false sense of security, abetted by Rory Beaton's discreetly evocative lighting and fluid movement direction of Caitlin Fretwell Walsh such as makes resourceful use of the full stage.
As a presentation true to the opera’s spirit, it could hardly be bettered – which equally applies to those unfailingly to-the-point surtitles as provided by Paul Hastie. All of which would count for little were the cast less attuned to this work than it manifestly is. Federico is evidently a role made for Samuel Sakker, his fervour and eloquence never descending into bathos or emoting – witness his second-Act aria 'E la solitaire storia del pastore', perfectly judged as to its despair and self-reproach over the woman he loves against his better nature. Yvonne Howard brings the requisite warmth and compassion to his mother Rosa, desperate to placate her son in his hapless bid to move on – as exemplified by 'Esser madre e un inferno’, the other extract to have outlived this opera's repertoire status. So too should have the arias for Baldassare, the shepherd whose wisdom and generosity of spirit help offset the encroaching melodrama and are thoughtfully conveyed by Keel Watson.
Of the smaller roles, Fflur Wyn has precisely the poise and winsomeness needed for Vivetta, whose bid to win the love of Federico is to be cruelly thwarted, while Samantha Price is no less inside the part of L'innocente, the essentially autistic younger sibling of Federico whose belated defining of self affords the only glimmer of hope. James Cleverton provides a deft cameo as Rosa's well-meaning brother Marco, while Simon Wilding evinces the necessary vengefulness as the wronged lover Metifo who hardly deserved being booed at the close.
The OHP Chorus acquits itself admirably, above all during its vivacious contribution as the wedding guests in the third Act. No stranger to OHP, Dane Lam secures a committed response from the City of London Sinfonia in music which, while hardly radical for its period, is never less than skilful and appealing – not least in its mellifluous writing for woodwinds along with a surprisingly extensive input from celesta (five years after its appearance in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker).
If the denouement rather falls into cliché, it is hardly the fault of this staging. Indeed, it is hard to imagine this opera being given a more sympathetic or more convincing production. Hopefully OHP will schedule Cilea's ill-fated Gloria during a future season: for now, however, what is already its third staging of L'arlesiana can be cordially recommended.