Sunday, 24 March 2019

Late romantic journeys: opera by Ravel & Tchaikovsky in a highly satisfying double bill from Royal Academy Opera

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Olivia Warburton - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The child and the dragonflies - Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Olivia Warburton
Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Tchaikovsky Iolanta, Ravel L'enfant et les sortileges;
Royal Academy Opera, dir: Oliver Platt, cond: Gareth Hancock; Royal Academy of Music

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 March 2019
A slightly unlikely but highly satisfying double bill, with superbly engaging performances

Whilst Ravel's opera L'enfant et les sortileges, with its libretto by Colette is not strictly a fairy tale it certainly has that combination of magic, morality and didacticism which is typical of a such tales. And, as such, it made quite a neat pairing with Tchaikovsky's problematical opera Iolanta at Royal Academy Opera's double bill. Both are 'not quite fairy-tales' (Iolanta is based on a Romantic Danish play), and in both the protagonist undergoes a metaphysical journey. And in each opera, the fairy-tale aspect of the piece puts the more disquieting elements of violence and control at one remove.


Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Claire Tunney, Robert Forrest - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Claire Tunney, Robert Forrest
Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
We caught the final performance of the run, on Friday 22 March 2019 in the Royal Academy of Music's Susie Sainsbury Theatre. Both operas in the double bill were directed by Oliver Platt and conducted by Gareth Hancock, with designs by Alyson Cummins, lighting by Jake Wiltshire, puppetry & movement by Emma Brunton. For Tchaikovsky's Iolanta we saw the alternate cast, with Clare Tunney as Iolanta, Robert Forrest as Vaudemont, Ossian Huskinson as King Rene, Paul Grant as Robert and Robert Garland as Ibn-Hakia, plus Hazel Neighbour, Frances Gregory, Stephanie Wake-Edwards and Connor Baiano. For Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges, Olivia Warburton was the child, with Alexandra Oomens, Lina Dambrauskaite, Ryan Williams, Tabitha Reynolds, Hanna Poulsom, Aimee Fisk, Gabriele Kupsyte, James Geidt and Will Pate.

Tchaikovsky's opera is a strange piece, King Rene's urge for total control of his daughter is disturbing, yet the character is sympathetically depicted in his concern for his daughter. Vaudemont's sudden appearance and immediate falling in love with Iolanta lacks the psychological depth of Tchaikovsky's other operas and perhaps it is significant that the composer started Iolanta after the intense labours of The Queen of Spades. What makes the opera work is the way Tchaikovsky depicts his heroine and her spiritual journey, and here you wonder whether blindness was standing stead for a number of other complex concerns in Tchaikovsky's own life.

Clare Tunney, whose roles have already included Fiordiligi (Cosi fan tutte) and Lady Billows (Albert Herring), has a substantial voice and was well able to support the role's requirement to produce endless streams of richly lyrical music (the first Iolanta was also the first Lisa in The Queen of Spades). But she also has an interesting voice, and really made you care about the character. This is important, as it is sometimes difficult to feel that Iolanta matters very much, yet here Tunney gripped us and made us really care for her plight.

As Vaudemont, Robert Forrest did not have quite the lyrical expansiveness in his voice as Tunney and when matching her in Tchaikovsky's glorious duet (the part of the opera Tchaikovsky wrote first) I sometimes felt Forrest pushed a little too much. His is a lithe, rather high tension voice with a lot of potential and here he committed himself with great intensity to this slightly problematical role. The sheer intenseness which he brought to it made it work.

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Joseph Buckmaster, Paul Grant, Robert Forrest - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Joseph Buckmaster, Paul Grant, Robert Forrest - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)

Paul Grant [last seen in Jonathan Dove's Flight at Royal Academy Opera, see my review], playing the notional hero betrothed to the heroine but in love with someone else, brought a nice combination of passion and brattishness to the role of Robert. Ossian Huskinson, playing a character around twice his age, developed King Rene as a highly sympathetic character, making us understand the reasons behind Rene's impulse for control, and Huskinson's account of his big aria was one of the highlights of the evening, resonant and richly musical. Robert Garland [also last seen in Flight] brought a strong sense of character to the doctor, Ibn-Hakia, whilst both Connor Biano and Stephanie Wake-Edwards made Bertrand and Marta (the couple who look after Iolanta) strong characters indeed, rounding out the rather sketchy characterisation in the music. There was nice support from Hazel Neighbour and Frances Gregory as the two attendants, Brigitta and Laura, and Joseph Buckmaster as Almeric.

Platt's production was simple but effective. Modern dress, yet with the women around Iolanta dressed in a style which evoked nuns or nurses, and their use of surgical gloves emphasised another aspect of the production, the desire to keep everything around Iolanta pristine and perfect. Platt drew strong performances from his whole cast, they made us care about the piece and the characters' journey, and the final chorus glorifying god became something that really mattered, rather than just a noisy finale.

The opera was sung in Russian, and as far as I could tell everyone concerned projected the text with admirable clarity.

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Ryan Williams, Hannah Poulsom, Olivia Warburton - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The teapot, the Chinese cup & the child - Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges
Ryan Williams, Hannah Poulsom, Olivia Warburton - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The production of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges was delightfully low tech. The child's bedroom was slightly period and very messy, complete with two pitched tents. The chorus and the soloists were all dressed as children, and the chorus formed a constant presence coming and going, helping to manipulate the effects such as the swathes of fabric representing the flames. Inside the house, characters were costumed like their counterparts, the English tea pot was depicted as a wrestler, the Chinese cup wore a Chinese robe, the clock had a pair of hands as a moustache and an abbreviated tie, representing his broken mechanism. The result was to emphasise character and created a performance of great immediacy. The animals were done as puppets, simple yet effective.

Olivia Warburton [whom we heard in the Samling Showcase at Wigmore Hall last year, see my review] sang all four performances as the child and was a superbly engaging young boy. She is a very physical performer and had all sorts of mannerism which suggested the surliness and complexities of youth. It was a delightful performance, complemented by Warburton's finely expressive sung account with lovely clear French. She wasn't quite as brattish as some, she charmed a bit more, and we really sensed the boy's journey; I particularly liked the scene with Alexandra Oomens' princess (clad just like Iolanta!) as we sensed the combination of attraction and embarrassment which was just right for a boy of that age, all in Warburton's expressive face. Given the high level of physicality of the rest of the production, it would have been easy for Warburton's performance to be overshadowed, but not a bit, she held our attention throughout without ever veering off into showing off. A highly sophisticated and eminently engaging performance.

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Olivia Warburton, James Geidt - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The child and the clock
Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Olivia Warburton, James Geidt - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The remainder of the characters were all at a high level, Will Pate and Aimee Fisk as elegant 18th century furniture, James Geidt as the clock with nicely clockwork movements, Hannah Poulsom and Ryan Williams as the wonderfully characterful tea pot and Chinese cup, Lina Dambrauskaite rather fearsome as the fire, and Alexandra Oomens [also last seen in Flight] charming as the princess. James Geidt and Gabriele Kupsyte were the cats, manipulating with two colleagues, puppets which consisted of just heads and tails yet really creating a sense of the full animals. Tabitha Reynolds firm but warm Maman was only every seen on the fringe of the stage, a deliberately shadowy figure.

This was very much an ensemble production, with everyone participating fully and Platt drew a highly engaging performance from all concerned, yet one which was beautifully expressive of Ravel's sophisticated sound world. Emma Brunton was responsible for the movement and the puppetry, important aspects of the production which were seamlessly blended into an enjoyable whole.

In the pit, Gareth Hancock and the orchestra did full justice to the very different styles of the two scores with the richly scored and lushly romantic Tchaikovsky, and the more aesthetic, fine-grained Ravel. Something strange and strained seemed to be happening in the orchestra at the very opening of the Ravel, but things quickly recovered.

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Gabriele Kusyte, James Geidt, Olivia Warburton - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The child & the cats - Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges
Gabriele Kusyte, James Geidt, Olivia Warburton - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
This was a surprisingly satisfying double bill, Oliver Platt's productions had a nice directness to them and in both he drew really engaging performance from his singers.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • The French 20th century saxophone: Tableaux de Provence from Dominic Childs & Simon Callaghan (★★★★) - CD review
  • Man, myth and magic: how story telling has come back into opera  - feature
  • Into the harem and beyond: the richness & exoticism of the music of Fazil Say (★★★★) - CD review
  • Thrilling dynamism: Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi trinitas on Signum (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Imaginative debut: Rarities by Lalo and Milhaud on Hee-Young Lim's debut disc of French cello concertos (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Not heard since its 1956 premiere: Eugene Bozza's oratorio Le chant de la mine from Valenciennes (★★★½) - Cd review
  • One last show: Bury Court Opera draws the final curtain, with a terrific account of Britten's The Turn of the Screw (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Almost music theatre: song cycles by Dominick Argento and Robert Schumann from Sarah Connolly at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Emotional soundscapes: the music of young Australian composer Brendon John Warner on his debut album La fonte  - CD review
  • Highly engaging: revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute from Simon McBurney, ENO & Complicit├ę (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Magnificent original: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake restored in a superb performance from Vladimir Jurowski on Pentatone (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Intimate conversations: the young Jubilee Quartet in three quartets spanning 20 years of Haydn's maturity (★★★★½) - CD review
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