From the outset, it’s clear that the director, Ella Marchment, will tell both stories: the sisterhood of the four marches and the larger sisterhood of the novel’s female readers. They have (for generations) found empathic role models in Louisa May Alcottclassic work of and a voice in a world where they have often been shouted, these days online as much as offline. Although Mark Adamo wrote this opera at the end of the 20th century, it feels relevant, urgent and very 21st century about it, its UK premiere.
Charlotte Badham captures Jo’s headstrong nature, her commitment to her family surpassing even her own romantic possibilities, her teenage arrogance as she seeks to undermine Meg’s match with John Brooke. This pairing isn’t ideal, but the two surely deserve more sympathy than is afforded them, even in the harsh environment of the 19th century marriage market. Badham is a charismatic, but often cruel and hard-to-love Jo – nevertheless, she is her own wife at a time (well, anytime really) when that was an achievement in itself. Badham is an alumnus of Opera Holland Park Young Artist, but her singing doesn’t always top the orchestra in a very demanding role played in an outdoor space that’s not always friendly to anything less than the most powerful voices. .
His rejected suitor, Laurie, receives real pathos from Frederick Jones, torn apart by the rejection of the childhood friend he once loved as a playmate and rare intellectual equal and now intends to love as a wife. It is in these traumatic moments that Sian Edwards’ direction extracts the pain that flows in and out of the score, with the City of London Sinfonia sometimes illustrating, sometimes leading, but never following the emotions on stage.
Lucy Schaufer and Benson-Wilson shine in cameo roles as wealthy and critical aunt Cecilia and scholar Professor Bhaer. Badham and Wilson get the best scene of the whole opera, when Bhaer lifts her criticism of Jo’s sensationalist stories by gently introducing Goethe and translating his German romanticism into English for her – not that she wasn’t smart enough to first understand its meaning turn of time…
There’s plenty of flashback time (the action takes place in flashback after the framing prologue) and a key plot point involving a man “settling” for the younger sister when he’s rejected by the more brilliant and stubborn eldest. I can’t be the only one wondering if Lin Manuel Miranda drew inspiration from these scenes when writing the Schuyler sisters’ signature scene in hamilton.
If the action dips a little towards the interval – dress well because the sun goes down at the same time – the second half picks up momentum and we are entitled to excellent harmonies (which it is a pity that there are no more) and a more active role for the choir. The ending – never easy in any adaptation of this novel – leaves us with a small leap in the process as the isolation that Jo has imposed on herself (much like that of poor Sonya in Uncle Vanya) seems unlikely to last much longer.
Opera Holland Park, more concerned with sustainability after the pandemic, has made a bold choice in programming a new work in this country, even if it comes with accolades from abroad and a “You have read the book, seen the movie, now see the opera” (unstated, of course) slogan. Not everyone will appreciate (some around me retreated from the cold at the break) but it’s an evening full of rewards, musical and intellectual, far from the lazy stereotype of Little woman like a novel for teenage girls finding themselves in bookish Jo, pretty Meg, doomed Beth and charming Amy.
Little Women is at Opera Holland Park until August 5
Photo credit: Ali Wright