The UK premiere of Mark Adamo’s 1998 two act opera was an interesting event. It sits well with Opera Holland Park’s policy of mixing the very well known work with the much less familiar within a single season and features some talented singers at various stages of their careers. It was also good to see the composer there, clearly moved by this account of his work.
We’re in the world of Louisa M Alcott’s famous 1868 novel with glances at its sequels as the four March sisters reflect from maturity on the events of their childhood. As with Carmen and Eugene Onegin the set by takis brings some of the action into the space between the audience and the orchestra which conveys a strong sense of immediate intimacy. For this show the main stage is dominated by a series of huge, distressed picture frames which make the small room scenes convincing and contained.
Adamo’s score – of its time, obviously – is short on sustained melody but strong on orchestral colour. During Brooke’s (Harry Thatcher) impassioned courtship of Amy (Elizabeth Karani) for example, with Jo (Charlotte Badham) trying to stop them, we get timp glissandi, snare drum tattoos and glockenspiel. And I like Adamo’s use of tubular bells. Both percussionists (Glynn Matthews and Jeremy Cornes) work very hard in this opera and the results are often arresting. Meanwhile there’s some good work in other sections in a piece which often sets up unusual combinations of instruments all well managed by Sian Edwards on the podium. The sympathetic playing here is testament to the long partnership between Opera Holland Park and City of London Sinfonia.
On stage Kitty Whately finds plenty of vocal warmth in Meg using her wide vocal range and depth to bring the most matronly of the sisters to life. Charlotte Badham delights, using body language and lots of notes to connote Jo’s confusion, intelligence, love for her sisters, anguish and – eventually – the hope of a happy ending for herself. Benson Wilson is terrific too as Friedrich Bhaer. His richly resonant bass voice would have captivated me too, had I been Jo.
There are a few problems with this show, though. There is a quartet of women who sit on stage, busy at various pursuits, almost continuously, occasionally singing. They are oddly dressed – one is a knight, another a Bohemian artist-type and the other two in 1920s-style slinky cocktail frocks. I spent much of the 2 hours and 50 minutes (including interval) of this show trying to puzzle out who exactly these women are and why they’re there.
And, good as the orchestra is, it occasionally overpowers the singers. There were times, for example, when I couldn’t hear Charlotte Badham. And there is a problem with accents – I suppose the cast has been directed to sound American. In fact it is not sustained and the odd word you hear pronounced other than in RP it sounds like Cornwall. Moreover the diction is often fuzzy. One really shouldn’t need surtitles for an opera sung in one’s own language but in this case you certainly do, so I was glad they were there.
There is, however, plenty to admire in Little Women and I hope Mr Adamo was pleased with it despite the flaws.