Portrait of Peter Ilitsch Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Dimitriyevdi Kuznetsov 1893
Tchaikovsky’s philosophical and psychological opera, Iolanta, playing at Opera Holland Park, has been a big hit with critics and audiences alike this summer. It is easy to see why, with its starry line up of singers such as the soprano Natalya Romaniw together with tenor, David Butt-Philip (the two have wanted to sing together for quite some time!). These two, coupled with heavy-weight Russian bass, Mikhail Svetlov, had me rushing to go and see this little-known opera before it finished on August 3rd.
I admit to being a little worried about Iolanta’s story line at first, fearing its irrelevance to today’s audience as it had its origins in a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen ( I was greatly troubled by his stories as a child).
It is the story of King René and the lengths he goes to to protect his daughter Iolanta, who is blind and blissfully unaware of the fact thanks to the King’s machinations. No one in his kingdom is to inform Iolanta of her visual impairment and if they do so, they face a death sentence! The weight of responsibility falls on ordinary citizens to check their language, ban colours, visual descriptions from their speech. The gagging order is played out on stage to shocking effect as rows of women bind their own mouths with their neck scarves!
In the opening scene, Iolanta, played by Romaniw, loads her basket of fruit and falls inexplicably listless and tired. She wonders why her friends know she is crying without them having touched her eyes! Romaniw in an arioso of immense feeling contrasts her present restless state with her past happiness. Romaniw’s voice has everything. Beauty, power, shading, channelled emotion. In this scene, she conveyed all the vulnerability, sweetness, innocence, with that inimitable melancholic tone that only she can produce.
A white-haired gentleman seated by me, produced a large handkerchief from the top pocket of his jacket and crushed it against his tear-stained cheek.
The nurse Martha, played by a wonderful Laura Woods, tries to comfort Iolanta. Girls bring in flowers and sing a song about them, the scene ends in a beautiful trio with nurse and two friends who try to lull Iolanta to sleep. I was reeling from the rapturous, rich sound that was produced by all.
Natalya Romaniw singing Iolanta at Opera Holland Park 2019 season
Most interestingly, the stage, designed by Takis, is minimalistic. Anything else would have been distracting and schmaltzy (I feared a fairy-tale landscape back drop!). Composed of intersecting neon lit triangles and trees of lighted baubles, it reminds the audience of the darkness and light inhabiting the universe and possibly brings us back to Iolanta’s mindset, emphasising her visual limitations.
Svetlov, playing her father, produced magic on stage as only a Russian singing in his native language can do. With his titanic bass, big stage presence, and strong but sympathetic character and tone, he produced many tears from the daughters in the audience. What it is to have a father who cares for you so much that he tries to adjust the world so that you won’t have to suffer! He may be misguided, a censor – but he loves you that much!
I was particularly interested to hear David Butt-Philip singing Vaudémont, in the all important love duet with Romaniw. The moment critique when she presents him with two white roses instead of a red rose he has requested, was poignant and moving as it is the first time he realises that she is blind. Lost for words, he is numbed into temporary silence. Recovering, he sings of the beauty in nature. The climax comes as Vaudémont describes the importance of light in the world. Butt-Philip had the experience and vocal dexterity to scale up to those high notes cleanly. Butt-Philip bright , optimistic tenor voice was perfect for the role and complimented Romaniw’s mournful tones. In opera, the destructive side of love is often emphasised but in Iolanta it is love’s restorative and healing quality which comes through
Walking away through Holland Park after the grand finale, my head swelling with all the amazing score, my thoughts turned to Tchaikovsky who I imagined hunched over his composition, late into the night. Did Iolanta allow him to approach the light of his true sexual orientation? Or was he hoping for others to be enlightened and more accepting in affairs of the heart. Who knows – but writing this opera must have been cathartic for him. It is an optimistic work offering hope and light to all of us.
A must if you haven’t seen this. Last two performances 1 and 3rd of August!
Two performances left at Opera Holland Park. 1 and 3rd of August.