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.

Is This The Future of Opera? Youthful Exuberance for Opera Holland Park.

 

12.jpgJack Holton (Anckarström) with Blaise Malaba (Ribbing) and Tom Mole (Horn).

 

Like Shakespearean actors and concert pianists, opera singers are outsiders in today’s entertainment world of self-made performers boasting one million subscribers on their Youtube channel.

Accessibility is of course a lovely idea and the internet has certainly provided an equal platform for aspirants. But there is one thing you can be sure of, even with the best will in the world, that you will never become an opera star just like that! Years of training and true grit might just get you over the first hurdle when you first set foot on the stage.

Knowing this, it is astonishing to think that there are still those willing to sacrifice the best of their youth to such a tough profession.

And yet they are, for opera is attracting more young blood and not always from the usual classical music schools. The Nadine Benjamins of this world are on the increase. Benjamin fought her way up from a Brixton council estate to become one of the UK’s most sought after lyrical sopranos. Of course it was a fight for her, even when she managed to find teachers, some of whom were most unhelpfully suggesting that she turn her efforts to jazz.

10Nadine Benjamin singing Amelia.

Still – there are now more job opportunities in opera as it opens up and is performed outside the established venues. The standard used to be middling to good outside ROH, Glynebourne, Garsington but all that has changed. Opera has evolved and what is more astounding, it is starting to get through to the young, thanks to people like Michael Volpe running Opera Holland Park, whose mission it has been to make opera accessible to all.

I was astonished to view a Twitter video recently of school children (10 years plus) giving a standing ovation to Un Ballo in Maschera at Holland Park Opera. The Ballo in question was a Young Artists’ performance of Verdi’s masterpiece. ‘Young artists’ in opera terms denotes singers in their mid to late 20s who are starting out in this careers.

Buoyed by this concept I was curious to see why the young audience had reacted so enthusiastically and made my way to the evening performance of Ballo the following day. The formula was thus: two leads sung by established singers, Nadine Benjamin in this production singing Amelia, and Adriano Graziani the ill-fated Swedish king, Gustavo. The rest of the troupe were youth artists. And of course all the above were supported by a strong OHP chorus and consistently brilliant City of London Sinfonia orchestra. The staging and set were gleaned from the original Ballo production at Holland Park the week before, which had been universally praised by the reviewers.

Never before have I heard Nadine Benjamin sing with such beauty and raw emotion. She was Amelia; married, loyal and gradually worn thin by her feelings for her husband’s employer.Wherever she was on stage she projected with passion and intelligence without overacting. Her centred approach gave more power to that astonishing voice of hers.

Adriano Graziani as Gustavo, excelled in the light-hearted arias in Act One, his bright tenor suiting the role. His body language was however awkward in the more intimate duets with Amelia. In Act III his solos in the penultimate scene were however intensely moving as he decides to let Amelia go to save her honour and marriage. Graziani was a generous support to his page, Oscar, sung by youth singer, Claire Lees. There was a nervous, tightness in Lees’s voice and body language to start (tough when you are singing coloratura) but with Graziani’s encouraging presence beside her, her life-enhancing, crystalline voice took off.

 

3Adriano Graziani (Gustavo) with Claire Lees (Oscar)

Meanwhile, Jack Holton embraced the onerous Anckarström role. At the matinée performance he had caused quite a stir on stage with his impressive stature, pony-tail and caressing baritone. He was almost too seductive for the role. It was only by clomping inelegantly around the stage did he succeed in making himself appear a little more prosaic. His young baritone voice was stretched a little in parts in the lower register, but in the main, it came across as rich and assured.

Other notable performances were Georgia Mae Bishop’s confident portrayal of Madame Arvidson the fortune teller. Conspirators, Ribbing, (Blaise Malaba), and Horn (Tom Mole) provided much needed black comedy to the piece especially in their mocking laughter trio with Anckarström.

Sam Oram finally, in the cameo role of Cristiano, didn’t quite get the opportunity to display his baritone credentials, but he is also someone scaling the operatic ladder.

All in all an exciting, highly ambitious project which came off brilliantly! Conductor, Sonia Ben-Santamaria, also from the young artist scheme, did a fine job of directing City of London Sinfonia in what is a fiendishly difficult opera to conduct with its fast tempos, quintets and intricate arrangements. Slight timing issues, when the French horns ran away with themselves for example, were just blips on an otherwise beautifully fluid interpretation of one of Verdi’s most ravishing of scores.

KH

Schools matinée curtain call of the year 2019: https://www.facebook.com/operahollandpark/videos/424337234958625/?q=Opera%20Holland%20Park&epa=SEARCH_BOX

My review of the adult performance of Ballo: https://artmuselondon.com/2019/06/20/verdis-ballo-in-maschera-a-revelation/

If you are interested in reading about the young artists at Opera Holland Park, here is the link: https://operahollandpark.com/news/introducing-the-opera-holland-park-young-artists-2019

    

Elizabeth Llewellyn In Fine Voice in Opera Holland Park’s ‘Manon Lescaut’.

vintage-opera-poster-manon-lescaut-1416842129-view-0

 

It had been quite some time since I had last seen Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s early opera. Not since 2014 when leading man, Jonas Kaufmann, the Tom Jones of opera, topped the bill, playing an overly confident De Grieux at the Royal Opera House. Nevertheless I lapped up his ill-fated love affair with Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, singing Manon, and the extravagent sets. 

Thinking back on it now, I question the lavish production. The operatic couple may have melded beautifully and the contemporary staging may have dazzled at first, but somehow it was distracting. 

Puccini’s operas run on high octane emotion. To have an ostentatious set can be de trop!

Opera Holland Park minimalist set did its work with no frills: a bar, a boudoir, which morphed into a film set and finally the harbour with broken brick wall, where Manon and other fallen women are shipped off to New Orleans. New Orleans well – you just had to imagine it. You wouldn’t have known the places without checking the libretto. Sometimes this was a touch disorientating.

More important was the inspired casting and interaction between the lovers and other key members of the troupe.

Here, I believe, Opera Holland Park got it absolutely right. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a statuesque Manon, was good at fleshing out her heroine’s complex character. Kittenish and flirtatious at first, cavorting with abandon at a party on a Twister mat, she shows herself to be easily led and impressed by money. She has supposedly fallen for student De Grieux beforehand and yet it doesn’t stop her playful antics with her brother, Lescaut, before Geronte, the wealthy and aged pursuer of young women. 

Paul Carey-Jones, as Lescaut, artfully demonstrated his slippery character in the way he disappeared and popped up unexpectedly on stage, first in the De Grieux, then in the Geronte camp. His baritone voice contained the right amount of menace and humour required for the role.

TT_Ssv80Meanwhile Stephen Richardson, singing Geronte, had the air of an eminent professor one minute, his elegant grey streaks and sharp suits giving him maximum allure, and mafioso, the next, in his dark shades. Wherever he was, he seemed to dominate the scene. His solid bass voice was memorable in the lower register but not allowed much space in this opera for tenors!

Peter Auty, playing the all important paramour, De Grieux was an interesting one. It must be hard for all principal singers to interpret well known roles and works. The audience expects so much of you and your leading lady, and Puccini certainly expected 100 per cent from his singers. 

zLT9grxP

There is also the problem of the way we perceive the lover. De Grieux in the story of Manon is a poor student and madly in love. The audience sympathies could well lie with him. In this production, he is seen as not only grief-stricken but obsessive and childish; even unhinged! I’m thinking that that might be what Karolina Sofulak, director of Manon, had in mind.

Peter Auty captures the restlessness of the lover, his jerky body language on stage, manifests physically the inner turmoil Manon instils in him. His Italianate tenor voice is at times close to breaking point and his high notes seem to be wrested from a truly tortured soul. Important arias like ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ (Have a care – I’m driven to madness’) when he persuades the captain of the ship, to take him on board to join Manon, are truly moving.  

Placed before the more poised Manon, whose strangled emotion only really comes through in the final act, De Grieux comes across as a psychological mess.

Llewellyn’s soprano voice was sophisticated, rich with all the necessary fragility in all the right moments. In the final act for example, when De Grieux has left her momentarily to seek help, she crumbles as the lights suddenly  illuminate the cinema posters on the wall where a ‘Manon’ tops the bill . She rips them to shreds, no longer able to contemplate her young, beautiful former self or is it her replacement? ‘Now I beg for the grave.’ ‘My love help me.’ 

UzeweJgi

There was some consternation in the audience after the final scene as the lovers ended up far apart from each other, Manon standing beneath a flickering street lamp and De Grieux many metres away in despair. The ladies in question seated in front of me, might have seen Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais in the Convent Garden Opera version, virtually joined at the hip, lying on the edge of a truncated flyover (you had to be there!). 

There is method to Karolina Sofulak’s vision. This quirk at the end emphasises Manon’s complete isolation. When Manon sings ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata,’ she really is, even when her lover returns from his vain search for help.

Highly recommended as Elisabeth Llewellyn is in fine voice.

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Pk runs for four more performances : Tues 18th June, Thurs 20th June, Saturday 22nd June and Wednesday 26th June.

KH