Even by the standards of Opera Holland Park, which likes to serve up at least one unfamiliar work each year, this double bill is obscure stuff. Puccini fans may have heard of his first opera, Le Villi, but are unlikely to have seen it staged; Delius’s Margot la Rouge is an opera not even its composer ever got to hear.
In Martin Lloyd-Evans’s stagings, each starts with the same tableau – a father and daughter sitting together, before the daughter walks out of the door. Any link between the two operas is tenuous, but perhaps both are cautionary tales: look what happens, girls, if you leave your daddy’s arms! Both possible eventualities – prostitution; death from a broken heart – are covered, Lloyd-Evans telling the stories straightforwardly in a set by takis that centres on a cabin whizzing round on a slightly overused revolve: a few posters and chairs turn it into Margot’s bar; a few flowers and it’s Anna’s garden in Le Villi.
At times Margot la Rouge sounds like an orchestral piece with optional voices, but that’s the fault of Delius rather than of Francesco Cilluffo, who conducts the City of London Sinfonia exuberantly yet sensitively. Delius was inspired to some muscular music by this French-language text, a short, blood-spattered story of a Parisian prostitute whose lost childhood sweetheart walks into her bar. It’s the kind of thing Puccini would end up being drawn to; indeed, there’s a touch of La Bohème in the supple, carefree rhythms when the bar is bustling early on. And bustle it does: the huge supporting cast is solid, several stepping out from the chorus. In the title role, Anne Sophie Duprels sounds aptly worldly yet mysterious. Samuel Sakker sings long-lost Thibault in a burly tenor but is outdone by Paul Carey Jones’s resonant thuggish Artist; Sarah Minns sounds bright and pointed as Lili, whose jealousy gets the blood flowing.
Duprels also takes the lead role in Le Villi, a heady, gothic piece based on the same story of ghostly revenge as the ballet Giselle. This time she’s the one abandoned, by Peter Auty’s faithless Roberto. Again, her singing is beautifully detailed but with the softest parts of phrases apt to disappear behind the orchestra. Stephen Gadd sings with authority as her father, delivering not one but two melodramatic narrations. Lloyd-Evans gives us shadows and open graves and witchy veiled women who dance with empty black suits that appear from nowhere. It’s a little bit schlocky, very creepy, and thoroughly entertaining.
• In rep until 6 August at Opera Holland Park, London.