Sunday 6 November 2016

Mavra and Iolanta: Russian double bill at the Guildhall School

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Guildhall School - photo Clive Barda
Stravinsky Mavra, Tchaikovsky Iolanta; dir: Kelly Robinson, cond: Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 4 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Rising to the challenge, Tchaikovsky's last opera in a lyrically passionate performance

For its latest double bill, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama paired Stravinsky's early comic opera Mavra with Tchaikovsky's last opera Iolanta, neither opera a regular repertory piece. Both were directed by Kelly Robinson with designs by Bridget Kimak, and lighting by Declan Randall. The operas were substantially double cast, and the cast we saw had Margo Arsane, John Findon, Jade Moffat and Chloe Treharne in Mavra, and Joanna Marie Skillett in the title role of Iolanta with David Ireland, Jade Moffat, Anna Sideris, Bianca Andrew, Bertie Watson, Eduard Mas Bacardit, Joseph Padfield, Dominick Felix and Dominic Sedgwick

Guildhall School - Stravinsky - Mavra - John Findon, Margo Arsane - photo Clive Barda
Guildhall School - Stravinsky: Mavra
John Findon, Margo Arsane - photo Clive Barda
Stravinsky's Mavra is one of his earliest neo-classical works, dating from 1922 when it was premiered in Paris. With a libretto based on Pushkin, the comic plot deals with Parasha (Margo Arsane) in love with a hussar, Vassilli (John Findon). They have trouble meeting, and when Parasha's mother (Jade Moffatt) laments the death of their maid and sends Parasha to find one, the new 'maid' Mavra is in fact Vassili dressed up. Neither the Mother nor the Neighbour (Chloe Treharne) recognise him, but he is unmasked when caught shaving. He escapes leaving Parasha desolate.

The opera looked a treat. Kelly Robinson and Bridget Kimak set the piece in the 1950s with a vividly bright palate of colours, and the lack of a maid in the household demonstrated by the clothes strewn around in alarming fashion. It was sung in English (no translator was credited) but the cast's diction was at best patchy, and only tenor John Findon managed to get many of the words across. It didn't help that despite the relative smallness of the band, the balance rather favoured the orchestra. And the orchestra sounded very good indeed with Dominic Wheeler getting a crisply incisive sound from them, but this is a comedy (or a satire) and text and context need to come over.

Guildhall School - Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Joanna Marie Skillett - photo Clive Barda
Guildhall School - Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Joanna Marie Skillett - photo Clive Barda
The cast all worked very hard, and there were some moments. Margo Arsane sounded lovely with her lyrical cantilena, even if the words disappeared, John Findon was ardently incisive and a complete delight in drag, whilst both Jade Moffatt and Chloe Treharne seemed to have a gift for comedy. But for me it did not add up to a funny or a satirical performance.

It is worth bearing in mind that Tchaikovsky would have been 82 the year Mavra was premiered, a not impossible feat. And it gives you an idea of the distance which Russian music travelled in the 20th century. Tchaikovsky''s Iolanta was his last opera, premiered in 1892 in a double bill with The Nutcracker. The opera's title is a Russification of Iolanthe, which was the name the original Danish play gave to the historical figure of Yolande de Bar (Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta adopted the name, but nothing else).

The plot deals with Iolanta (Joanna Marie Skillett) who lives in an isolated garden. She is blind and has been since birth, tended by her friends Marta (Jade Moffat), Brigitta (Anna Sideris) and Laura (Bianca Andrew) she does not realise that she is missing the sense of sight, and does not understand what it is. Her father King Rene (David Ireland) keeps her like this till she can be cured and brings a Muslim healer Ibn-Hakia (Joseph Padfield) to help her. But Ibn-Hakia insists she needs to be told she is blind first, and Rene is reluctant. Two young men come across the garden by accident. Robert (Dominic Sedgwick) is betrothed to Iolanta but does not know her and already has a beloved. He is accompanied by Vaudemont (Dominick Felix). When they discover the sleeping Iolanta it is Vaudemont who is entranced and who stays.

Guildhall School - Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Joseph Padfield, David Ireland - photo Clive Barda
Guildhall School - Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Joseph Padfield, David Ireland - photo Clive Barda
I have always assumed that the plot was an allegory for sexual awakening, but Kelly Robinson chose otherwise. Gone was any sense of Tchaikovsky's lyrical garden paradise depicted in the music. Iolanta is in a hospital ward and her friends are in fact nurses. Everything is artifice, so the flowers that are picked for her are artificial ones sprayed with perfume, the warmth of the sun is in fact a sun lamp. But the hospital setting was not as sterile as might be imagined, and often the scenes were over-layed with video projections (designed by K Yoland) which really created a sense of atmosphere, and vividly brought to life the scene where Iolanta is cured of her sight.

For Robinson the opera is about control, the sense that women in relationships in the 19th and 20th centuries are frequently simply in the control of men, and Iolanta passes from the control of her father to her husband. Robinson did not change Tchaikovsky's lyrical ending but it was clear that he took a questioning view of the future relationship of Iolanta and Vaudemont. The problem was that there was very little of the sense of Iolanta exploring her release into a world of sight, her discovering of new emotions, it was a rather passive view of the character.

Within these limitations, we got strong performances from the cast and a finely lyrical account of the score. Iolanta is a big dramatic role, it was written for Medea Mei-Figner, the soprano who created the role of Lisa in Queen of Spades. Joanna Marie Skillett (last seen as Ida in Strauss's Die Fledermaus at Opera Holland Park) turned in a lovely lyrically passionate account of the score. She impressed not only with the luxuriant warmth of her phrasing, but with the understatedly natural way she conveyed the character's blindness. She is definitely a singer to watch out for.

Dominick Felix was equally impressive as Vaudemont, a part written for Medea Mei-Figner's husband Nikolai Figner (the first Hermann in Queen of Spades). Felix is a singer who has cropped up on this blog before (in the Christine Collins Young Artists performance of Delibes Lakme at Opera Holland Park, and in British Youth Opera's performance of Jonathan Dove's Little Green Swallow). Here he demonstrated a finely vibrant tenor, coping with the challenges of the part almost effortlessly and singing with a sense of spinto incisiveness which boded for an interesting future. He was perhaps a little too calm of demeanour, too laid back, but overall made a fine partnership with Skillett.

Guildhall School - Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - photo Clive Barda
Guildhall School - Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - photo Clive Barda
Dominic Sedgwick made a strong Robert, emphasising the sense that initially he is a bit of a selfish shit (a lyrical aria about his mistress whilst on the way to meet his fiancee), but he stands aside at the end to allow Felix's Vaudemont to marry Iolanta. (We last heard Sedgwick in the title role of Britten's Owen Wingrave with British Youth Opera, and in recital at the London Sketch Club). Sedgwick brought a sense of passion to Robert's aria (even though there was a sense that it was still half a size too big for his voice) which meant you were able to hear him as a future Eugene Onegin.

David Ireland's King Rene was a far more sympathetic character than might be thought, because Ireland combined gravity with an intense sense the character's feeling for his daughter. This really came over in a stunning account of Rene's aria. (Ireland is also a singer who has popped up on this blog before, in Wolf-Ferrari's Le donne curiose and in the Donizetti/Arnold double bill all at the Guildhall School.

The rest of the cast were all strong, creating a really fine sense of ensemble Jade Moffatt, Anna Sideris and Bianca Andrew made the opening scenes lyrically beautiful despite the setting, whilst Joseph Padfield brought strong sense of character to the slightly strange role of Ibn-Hakia. Even the smaller characters get their moments so that both Bertie Watson (Bertrand) and Eduard Mas Bacardit (Almeric) impressed.

The opera was sung in what sounded to my ears like creditable Russian, and all the singers conveyed a sense of communication with the words (something that had not happened in the first opera).

Tchaikovsky's big, passionate score is a significant ask for a student orchestra, even one as accomplished as the orchestra at the Guildhall School. The opera's prelude came over as frantic rather than lyrically intense. But though the strings never developed a real sheen the later scenes developed into a real sense of lyrical character with some impressive moments.

It was thanks to the overall musicality of the performance, and the winning sense of personality which Skillett brought to the title role, the opera really took off. There is no denying that, for all its compact brevity, Tchaikovsky's Iolanta is a big challenge for student voices, but the cast really rose to that challenge.

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