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.

‘Partenope’ at English National Opera

English National Opera’s 2016/17 season closes with a welcome revival of Christopher Alden’s Olivier Award-winning 2008 production of G. F. Handel’s Partenope, first staged in 1730.

The plot, daft even by Baroque comic opera standards, revolves around the mythical Partelope, Queen of Naples, and her multiple suitors. Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, awash with braggadocio, cross-dressing and sexual intrigue, is agreeably frivolous fare.

Alden has transferred the setting to a 1920s weekend house party with Partenope as the Nancy Cunard-style hostess, where the ultimate peril facing the assembled Bohemians is getting stuck in the downstairs lavatory. A Surrealist touch is added by modelling one of the suitors, Emilio, on photographer Man Ray. Jon Morrell’s costumes and Andrew Lieberman’s Art Deco sets are evocative, and Amanda Holden’s peppy translation suits the louche atmosphere well.

ENO Partenope Sarah Tynan, James Laing and Patricia Bardon (c) Donald Cooper-L

Soprano Sarah Tynan, all marcelled chic and crisp delivery, excels in her role debut as Partenope. Outstanding, too, is the rich mezzo of Patricia Bardon, in the primo uomo part of Arsace. Countertenor James Laing is engaging as silly ass Armindo, and there’s sterling support from Stephanie Windsor Lewis (as Arsace’s jilted lover Rosmira) and Matthew Durkan (as the foppish Ormonte). Rupert Charlesworth, replacing Robert Murray at short notice, contributes a turbo-charged performance as the interloping Emilio. Noted Handelian Christian Curnyn, who also conducted the original production, marshals the ENO orchestra with brio.

ENO Partenope Rupert Charlesworth and Sarah Tynan (4) (c) Donald Cooper-XL

It’s been bruited in some quarters that Partenope is subpar Handel, belonging at the back of the repertoire. That’s nonsense: it fairly bursts at the seams with unalloyed da capo bliss. (If you doubt me, sample Riccardo Minasi’s excellent 2015 recording, which at the time of writing was available here).

Partenope continues the glorious series of Handel revivals at the Coliseum launched almost 30 years ago by Nicholas Hynter’s near-legendary production of Xerxes. ENO should now dust off Agrippina, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alicina and Semele – the lot. If the payoff is a run of semi-staged adaptations of ‘Carousel’ with Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe, then I, for one, say: bring it on!

NM

Partenope at ENO to 24th March 2017

All photographs: Donald Cooper

An opera for our troubled times: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at ENO

How to turn one of Shakespeare’s late “problem plays” into an opera? It’s something which has preoccupied conductor and composer Ryan Wigglesworth since his student days. Now 37, his ruminations have come to fruition in this commission for English National opera (ENO) and in The Winter’s Tale, he has produced an opera for our troubled times – tense, unsettling and eloquently-scored.

Wigglesworth admits that while he’s never seen a convincing stage version of The Winter’s Tale, the material is ripe for operatic adaptation, not only its powerful central theme – a king looking back repentantly over his past – but also the set pieces of dramatic crisis: the trial, the storm, the passing of the years. In Wigglesworth’s version, plot and text are stripped right back – an adaptation into another art form almost begs a radical appraisal of what is essential to the narrative – and Wigglesworth’s concision means one never feels overloaded with music. In fact, one of the most striking features of this opera, amongst many others, is the way text and music dovetail to create a condensed dramatic whole which vibrates with intensity. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter does not lend itself easily to song (it’s too long to be sung intelligibly), so Wigglesworth, who also wrote the libretto, has created a text which has a keen sense of the poetry of Shakespeare, artful but never simplistic, set to music which is mercurial, lyrical and deeply atmospheric with its tender washes of strings, haunting clarinet lines, anxious flutter-tongued flute, portentous growling basses and trombones, and edgy xylophone and snare drum to match Leontes’ agitation and suspicion about his queen. A Britten-like melancholy and tautness suffuses the score.

It is the “fake news” in Leontes’ head which drives the narrative in the first act. He suspects his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, but unlike Othello, who is convinced by Iago’s weasel words, Leontes believes his own propaganda and every touch, every incline of the head between Hermione and Polixenes feeds his fears. Baritone Iain Paterson portrays a King of Sicilia who is both powerful yet vulnerable. At times his voice almost creaks with emotion, his broad-shoulders clad in a boxy uniform seem poised on the cusp of collapse. In the opening sequence he parades and preens, self-admiring and proud, his body language redolent of a more contemporary leader who favours over-sized suits and self-aggrandisement….. The contrast between this and the broken, repentant man we meet in Act 3 is stark and poignantly drawn.

His queen Hermione, elegantly sung by Sophie Bevan, is gently flirtatious but never openly coquettish with Polixenes. When she begs him to stay in Sicilia, it is the pleading of a friend not a lover. Polixenes, sharply sung by Leigh Melrose, takes heed of servant Camillo’s advice and flees Sicilia before the trial.

The trial is the dramatic heart of Act 1 and is the first opportunity for the ENO’s fine chorus to come to the fore as the crowd who act like a Greek chorus, chanting their support for Hermione and calling upon the god Apollo. The revolving, circular set is used to great dramatic effect here, cleaving into jagged parts which then form a seascape for baby Perdita’s storm-tossed journey to Bohemia. In Act 3 the fractured walls reflect the King’s emotional scars.

The action moves forward apace in Act 1, yet the claustrophobic intensity of the narrative, the spare language and unsettling, haunting scoring create a sense of time elongated.

Act 2 opens in sunny Bohemia, a place of honey-stoned buildings and cheerful pavement cafés. This is where Perdita, Leontes’ daughter, has made her home, adopted by a kindly shepherd and in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes. But suspicious stalks the streets here too: camouflaged soldiers prod and provoke the crowd, and Polixenes appears in battle fatigues and dark glasses, like the military dictator of a South American republic. The joyful, folksy celebration of Perdita and Florizel’s love cannot last long and the couple are forced to flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes.

The final Act, the scene of recognition and reconciliation between Leontes and his daughter ends not with a neat tying up of ends as one normally finds in theatrical productions of this play. A sense of ambiguity, of incompleteness pervades, and Leontes’ final soliloquy “Stars, stars, all eyes else dead coals!” is a moment of raw emotion.

Acclaimed actor Rory Kinnear, who makes his directorial debut, has set the narrative in a modern-day military state, replete with oversized state statues, sharply fitted uniforms heavy with medals and gold-frogging, and fearful obsequious servants – excepting the queen’s stalwart supporter Paulina, magnificently sung by Susan Bickley. The set’s concentric circular walls work well in informing and moving forward the narrative and create a sense of “us looking in on them”, as almost voyeuristic observers of the action.

There may be trouble at the top at ENO, but down on the stage great things are happening and this production of The Winter’s Tale further confirms that.

Recommended.

FW

The Winter’s Tale continues in repertory at ENO/London Coliseum until 14 March 2017

(Photo: Sophie Bevan, Zach Roberts and Iain Paterson in ENO’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’. Picture by Johan Persson)