Little Women has been transformed from Louisa May Alcott’s original book into plays, films (even a cartoon) but until Mark Adamo’s 1998 version, it had never been an opera. Premiered in Houston to great acclaim, it’s taken a couple of decades to reach the UK and the always-enterprising Opera Holland Park have been the ones to bring it here.
OHP’s season is drawing to a close and so perhaps this is a good moment to say what a great mix it’s been this year – all-time favourite operas next to almost entirely unknowns – some marvellous playing from the City of London Sinfonia (with Little Women under Sian Edwards being no exception) and some fine performances from the singers including many who have been through OHP’s Young Artists programme.
The sets, too, have been worth applauding – and that’s no mean feat on the comparatively small Holland Park stage – with great use of the apron (the orchestra is cocooned in the middle). For Little Women, director Ella Marchment and designer Madeleine Boyd have used the set made by takis for the earlier double bill of Margot la Rouge and Le Villi and transformed it to create a framed March family home as the opera opens. It is the first of a series of vignettes, pictures painted by heroine Jo as she tells the family history. Around the outside more frames with the avatars of the sisters in present-day dress act as a chorus on the action.
Adamo opens the opera not at the chronological beginning of the book but at its heart. Laurie (Frederick Jones) has arrived home to Massachusetts to tell Jo (Charlotte Badham) to whom he had proposed before leaving for Europe that he has returned married instead to Jo’s sister Amy (Elizabeth Karani). From here Adamo takes us back in time using the device of story-teller Jo writing her family’s history.
This all works extremely well – no one is going to be confused by the time changes in such a well known tale – and as the girls are introduced through their childhood games, Adamo takes the opportunity to define their characters. Above all, though, it has to be Jo who tells their story and she is quite literally at the forefront of the action (she writes at her desk on the apron as close as possible to the audience). Charlotte Badham (a former OHP Young Artist herself) makes the most of Jo’s rambunctiousness, ferocity and bad temper but also her vulnerability as she reveals her adolescent desire for nothing to change.
This comes to the fore when her older sister Meg (Kitty Whately) decides to marry the rather dull John Brooke (Harry Thatcher) and again when Laurie proposes to Jo herself: why, she protests, can’t we all stay children forever; why can’t everything stay the same? But, of course, Little Women is all about change. Meg marries, Beth dies, Amy goes to Europe with Aunt March (a marvellous performance this from Lucy Schaufer) and returns married to Laurie. And eventually Jo herself changes, leaving for New York to become a writer and eventually falling in love with Friedrich (Benson Wilson).
Sentimentality is hard to escape in Little Women but Marchment overcomes this with the sheer zest of this production. At times there is so much happening on stage it gets a bit too busy (where do I look?) and Adamo’s libretto can be extremely wordy (the surtitles were working overtime) though it does have some amusing rhymes.
For me, Adamo’s music is a little too thin and generic, but he shines with some good arias – oddly enough often for the men. The evening is carried through, though, by some cracking performances and fine playing on the part of the City of London Sinfonia, making this is a worthwhile and, at times, surprising evening out.
Little Women runs until 5th August. For more information, and tickets, please visit www.operahollandpark.com.
Photos © Ali Wright