Tuesday 23 July 2019

Powerful contrasts: Wolf-Ferrari and Tchaikovsky in Opera Holland Park's double bill

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Wolf-Ferrari Susanna's Secret, Tchaikovsky Iolanta; Clare Presland, Richard Burkhard, Natalya Romaniw, David Butt Philip, Grant Doyle, Mikhail Svetlov, dir: John Wilkie, Olivia Fuchs, City of London Sinfonia, cond: John Andrews, Sian Edwards; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 July 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
An evening of contrasts with Wolf-Ferrari's charming comedy followed by a performance of Tchaikovsky's last opera notable for its riveting intensity

Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret - Richard Burkhard, Clare Presland - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret - Richard Burkhard, Clare Presland -
Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
For its final production of the season, last night (22 July 2019) Opera Holland Park unveiled a double bill of rarely performed operas, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's Susanna's Secret and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Susanna's Secret was conducted by John Andrews and directed by John Wilkie, with Clare Presland as Susanna, Richard Burkhard as Gil and John Savournin as Sante. Iolanta was conducted by Sian Edwards and directed by Olivia Fuchs with Natalya Romaniw as Iolanta, David Butt Philip as Vaudémont, Mikhail Svetlov as René, Grant Doyle as Robert, Ashley Riches as Ibn-Hakia, Charne Rochford as Alméric, Barnaby Rea as Bertrand and Laura Woods as Marta. Designs for both operas were by Takis. The City of London Sinfonia was in the pit.

Both operas remain somewhat underperformed, partly because neither has an obvious companion work (Iolanta  was premiered with the ballet, The Nutcracker). And whilst the double bill was perhaps not an obvious pairing, the two works were written less than 20 years apart and both deal in different ways with how men control women.

Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret - John Savournin, Clare Presland - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret
John Savournin, Clare Presland
Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Wolf-Ferrari's intermezzo Susanna's Secret followed two of his operas based on Goldoni comedies, and there is a sense that Susanna's Secret is aiming to mine similar territory but from a modern slant. Gil (Richard Burkhard) and Susanna (Clare Presland) are newly weds and clearly love, but Gil's behaviour is controlling and Susanna has a secret she does not wish to share. Enrico Golisciani's libretto casts the story as a comic farce, but examines some serious issues. Gil discovers Susanna's secret (she smokes) and joins her in smoking, a metaphor perhaps for something more complex.

John Wilkie's production took the work at face value with Takis' designs placing it in period, and they gave us a charming and comic interlude but I could not help thinking that making the action a little more pointed would have helped the work. Perhaps Susanna's secret needs to be something stronger than smoking (society's attitudes to women and to smoking have changed so radically since the opera's premiere in 1909), may be modernising the action and making Susanna smoke a joint might help.

Be that as it may, the cast gave a finely engaging and lively performance. Richard Burkhard kept Gil, a character who can seem overbearing, nicely on the comic side with a remarkable physicality to his performance, whilst Clare Presland's winning Susanna was delightfully knowing and seemed ultimately to have the upper hand in the relationship. John Savournin almost stole the show in the silent role of the servant Sante.

The sparkling overture to the opera is moderately well known, but John Andrews and the City of London Sinfonia showed us that the rest of Wolf-Ferrari's score is equally delightful.

There was a radical mood change for the second half with Tchaikovsky's 1892 opera Iolanta. The work as cropped up recently in productions at London music colleges, but Opera Holland Park's production represented a rare professional outing for the work. The libretto by the composer's brother Modest has its unsatisfactory aspects and the deeper meaning of the plot, with the young Iolanta's journey from darkness to light, remains a bit elusive. But there is no doubt that the piece contains some of Tchaikovsky's finest music, though I still find the religiose ending a disappointment after the heights of Iolanta and Vaudémont's crucial duet.

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - David Butt Philip, Natalya Romaniw - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - David Butt Philip, Natalya Romaniw
Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Takis provided a simple, greenhouse-like structure for the set with lights doing duty as flowers, and costumes were roughly mid-20th century, avoiding any sense of the picturesque of the original. Similarly Fuchs production did not make too much of the complicated mechanics of the plot, instead she concentrated on the characters and drew performances of such power and strength from the cast that made the opera completely riveting.

Returning to the title role having sung it at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Natalya Romaniw really made Iolanta's journey matter. The role is central to the opera, and Romaniw drew us on from her opening scene where she made us feel something missing from princess' sheltered life. It helped that Romaniw's voice has developed in amplitude and richness, so that as Iolanta's world gradually opened up, so did Romaniw's performance. In this she was wonderfully paired with David Butt Philip's unassuming but ardent Vaudémont. Like Romaniw, Butt Philip's character went on a musical as well as dramatic journey, and the two made Iolanta and Vaudémont's duet truly glorious, A central point of the opera. But these performances were about more than just lovely melodies, so that Romaniw and Butt Philip made the characters' developing relationship seem essential to the drama, taking us, the audience, on a journey too.

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Ashley Riches - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Ashley Riches - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
These two characters were surrounded by a strong and expressive cast. Robert disappears for a large chunk of the opera, but Grant Doyle delivered his aria in praise of his beloved Mathilde with an intensity which brought the house down. The doctor Ibn-Hakia was not portrayed as physically any different from the rest of the cast, instead Ashley Riches' performance drew a wonderful sense of otherness around Ibn-Hakia and at the end, his duty done, you sensed the character evaporating. Mikhail Svetlov succeeded in making King René rather less over-bearing than in some performances, almost sympathetic in the intensity of his care for his daughter. As the couple responsible for the day to day care of Iolanta, Barnaby Rea and Laura Woods gave touching performances, and Charne Rocheford provided strong support as the King's messenger, Alméric.

In the pit, Sian Edwards managed to make the City of London Sinfonia seem like a far bigger band, and complemented the singers with a suitable orchestral richness.

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