Iolanta: Coming Into the Light

 

tchaikovsky-kuznetsov-crop

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.

 

Ali Wright

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!

KH

Two performances left at Opera Holland Park. 1 and 3rd of August.

A Riveting Ripper at the Coliseum

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Jack the Ripper’s frenzied killing spree in Victorian London has never ceased to fascinate and appall. 

Iain Bell, composer of the ambitious new opera of the same name, and his librettist Emma Jenkins, decided, when creating their new work, to rid the stage of his presence altogether and to focus instead on the Ripper’s female victims, the women of Whitechapel.

In the opera Jack exists merely in song, most memorably in the scene with the Pathologist, when Ripper’s grisly acts are revealed in minute detail.

The curtain rose on a doss house, resembling both prison and morgue, with its macabre drawers and recesses. The higher drawers slid back and out popped a row of heads belonging to Victorian undertakers in top hats, like clients at a peep show. 

Surreal yes! This strange scene also reflects the reality of doss houses at that time which not only attracted prostitution but also provided strange bedding arrangements. Ropes were on offer for tuppence a time, for those prepared to flop over them and sleep standing up. Coffin beds were the upgrade for a few pennies more.

What we see on stage are not coffins however but open graves, from which the female occupants rise, like the dead in Stanley Spencer’s famous painting, ‘The Resurrection’.

The stage was so starkly lit that at first we were unable to distinguish the main female protagonists hiding in shadow. Nor could we see who was singing!

The interval was the time to check the cast list so as to make quite sure that we were seeing who we thought we were seeing!

No doubt this was a ploy to show the anonymity of women living in the sprawling slum. In the 1880’s Whitechapel, one-in-four women were obliged to take to the streets when money was short.

I had recognised Natalya Romaniw playing the part of Mary, daughter of Maud, the doss-house proprietress. Romaniw, I am delighted to say, fully embraced her character. Her acting was assured in this opera and her voice – well what a voice it is. Mournful, pitch-perfect, the sort of voice which astounds and moves at once.

Romaniw was really convincing in the role of anxious mother trying to protect her daughter, Magpie, from prostitution.

 

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UKNatalya Romaniw Ashirah Foster Notice.

It helped too that Romaniw’s stage mother, Maud, was Dame Josephine Barlow, who disturbs in her evil, matriarchal role. (Think Flora Robson in Wuthering Heights with the strict hair bun, wiry figure in black with her cold, dead stare). 

Maud reminds us throughout the opera that she was raped aged eight, (‘the rasp of carpet under my cheek … it is with me always’). Hopelessly damaged, she can only think about herself, her suffering, her pain! 

The confrontational scenes with Romaniw and Barstow were tense, exciting and marvellously dramatic.

But all ‘six little trollops’ (their words not mine) were played convincingly. I particularly enjoyed Liz Stride’s comic character, sung by Susan Bullock. She was a humorous drunk as she belted out, ‘God, I love a fireman!’

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

An interesting, and for me, essential part of this opera, was its portrayal of men, who are not all hypocritical, sexual predators. Some are vulnerable.

Nor are all women victims. Maud is the ultimate female abuser. It is she who procures young flesh for the Victorian establishment and who wants her granddaughter to enter the profession so that she can earn her way.

Sometimes the abuser-victim lines were blurred. ’Don’t touch me,’ sang a furious male photographer, who produced erotica, when Catherine, his model (played by Leslie Garrett) tried to seduce him. But he is far from squeaky clean since he provides gory pictures of naked victims to Victorian gentlemen. 

Details like this prevented the opera from being overly simplistic in its conclusions and I applaud Iain Bell for that.

It is true that anonymous black-suited men did regularly flood the stage like  locusts feeding on their female prey. 

Two male outsiders come across as sympathetic to women. Squibby feeds the starving girls with scraps of meat he has put aside in the slaughter house he works in. He does have a motive meanwhile; he is passionately in love with Mary.

 The Writer meanwhile is a young, social reformer who has ended up lodging at the doss-house. He pens a letter to Queen Victoria to alert her to the misery of Whitechapel and its women and also undertakes to educate Magpie, Mary’s daughter. 

Sadly both men are not rewarded for their troubles.

 Alex Otterburn (Squibby) was particularly touching in the scenes in which he played with Mary’s daughter, Magpie.

As for the music itself, it is always difficult to review new music, especially opera. It warrants hearing many times over before it sinks in. All I can say is that Ian Bell’s stark composition really evoked the horrors of the slum. At times, the evil, death march sounds and pace seemed almost too much. Sensibly Bell had added humour and pathos to the mix.

Emma Jenkins’s libretto improved as the opera progressed. At first, there was a little too much telling of what was evident. The libretto firmed up, phrases of suffering were repeated over and over, adding urgency and tension to the piece.

There were moments of beauty and reflection as when Lesley Garrett and Janis Kelly sing a melody full of nostalgic longing: ‘I had a man before… I had a life before,’ with the chorus.

Bell and Jenkins must have felt blessed to have such a stellar cast of sopranos to work with. Indeed all the singers and chorus were excellent – not one bad apple among them!

My most vivid memory of the evening was the drinking song, performed in the friendly Britannia Pub. Its amber-lit, stained-glass window of art and crafts design was  a beacon of warmth in an otherwise living hell. 

In stark contrast, the final scene was visually chilling with its horizon of top hats and Victorian matriarch with black plume rearing up like the Queen of Spades in Tchaikovsky’s opera.

'Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel' Opera by Iain Bell performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Dame Josephine Barstow (centre) with chorus

 

All in all a fascinating multi-layered work and a rare opportunity to see six famous sopranos sing under one roof!

 

KH

 

 

Jack The Ripper. The Women of Whitechapel is on for a further 5 performances. 03,05,08, 10 and 12 April at 7.30pm

500 tickets for £20 are available for each performance.