Little Women, Opera Holland Park, review: a strong cast can't redeem this bland score

Kitty Whately as Meg, Elizabeth Karani as Amy, Charlotte Badham as Jo and Harriet Eyley as Beth in Little Women at Opera Holland Park - Ali Wright
Kitty Whately as Meg, Elizabeth Karani as Amy, Charlotte Badham as Jo and Harriet Eyley as Beth in Little Women at Opera Holland Park - Ali Wright

Few novels have had such a lasting impact across the years as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) and its sequels, offering strong character studies in the four sisters whose growing-up it portrays – and especially in the central character Jo, an inspiring role model of the independent woman who achieves her success through writing. It has been captured on film several times (with Katherine Hepburn as Jo in 1933 and Saoirse Ronan in 2019) and has not lost its power to speak to new young generations.

In 1998 the composer Mark Adamo turned it into an opera with his own skilful libretto, reworking the text and focussing the story on that sense of loss that comes with age, maturity and responsibility. We know that in the end Jo will marry and bid farewell to the childhood shared with her sisters, and the focus of the piece is her resolute determination to avoid men as anything but friends, and her commitment to her isolated writing.

Premiered at Houston Grand Opera, the opera was a huge success and has been repeatedly performed around America, and increasingly abroad. But not here, until now, when the ever-enterprising Opera Holland Park has taken it up. Why our reluctance to stage it? Certainly the novels have less salience here than in the States, but that should not be a bar: on a first encounter I would reluctantly guess that the failure has more to do with the music itself. As expertly guided here by conductor Sian Edwards, it comes across as a milk-and-water mixture of styles, drawing on many sources from opera and musical theatre, treated eclectically and sometimes effectively, but without ever defining a strong character of its own.

The performers, led by Charlotte Badham’s feisty, ever-active Jo, and her three sisters Meg (Kitty Whately), Beth (Harriet Eyley) and Amy (Elizabeth Karani) are sharply characterised in Ella Marchment’s well crafted production, set within Madeleine Boyd’s elegant designs, four picture frames for four sisters. The men, especially Jo’s initial love interest Laurie (Frederick Jones) and Friedrich (Benson Wilson) are heartfelt, but just do not have the musical material to work with.

One cannot praise enough the commitment and professionalism of the Opera Holland Park and City of London Sinfonia forces, nor their adventurousness in giving this now-famous opera an overdue hearing. But for whatever cultural reasons, not all music travels well.

Until Aug 5. Tickets: 0300 999 1000; operahollandpark.com