Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

There is no rose: Gesualdo Six at St John's Smith Square

This concert of Christmas music at St John’s Smith Square confirmed that not only are the Gesualdo Six and their director Owain Park fine and thoughtful musicians, but that they can skilfully shape a musical narrative.

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Bohuslav Martinů – What Men Live By

World premiere recording from Supraphon of Bohuslav Martinů What Men Live By (H336,1952-3) with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from a live performances in 2014, with Martinů's Symphony no 1 (H289, 1942) recorded in 2016. Bělohlávek did much to increase Martinů's profile, so this recording adds to the legacy, and reveals an extremely fine work.

Berlioz: Harold en Italie, Les Nuits d'été

Hector Berlioz Harold en Italie with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles with Tabea Zimmermann, plus Stéphane Degout in Les Nuits d’été from Hamonia Mundi. This Harold en Italie, op. 16, H 68 (1834) captures the essence of Romantic yearning, expressed in Byron's Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage where the hero rejects convention to seek his destiny in uncharted territory.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

Le Bal des Animaux : Works by Chabrier, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie et al.

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthaüser’s latest song recital is all about the animal kingdom. As in previous recordings of songs by Wolf, Debussy and Poulenc, pianist Eugene Asti is her accompanist in Le Bal des Animaux, a delightful collection of French songs about creatures of all sizes, from flea to elephant and from crayfish to dolphin.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

Wolfgang Rihm: Requiem-Strophen

The world premiere recording of Wolfgang Rihm's Requiem-Strophen (2015/2016) with Mariss Jansons conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks with Mojca Erdmann, Anna Prohaska and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, from BR Klassik NEOS.

Don Giovanni: Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera turned the art of seduction into bloodsport with its 2018/19 season-opener of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni often walking a razor’s edge between hilarious social commentary and chilling battles for the soul.

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

It's a Wonderful Life in San Francisco

It was 1946 when George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY nearly sold himself to the devil for $20,000. It is 2018 in San Francisco where an annual income of ten times that amount raises you slightly above poverty level, and you’ve paid $310 for your orchestra seat to Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Des Moines: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

A minor miracle occurred as Des Moines Metro Opera converted a large hall on a Reserve Army Base to a wholly successful theatrical venue, and delivered a stunning rendition of Tom Cipullo’s compelling military-themed one act opera, Glory Denied.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

<em>Iolanta</em>, GSMD
01 Nov 2016

A Russian double bill from the GSMD

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama have taken on quite a challenge in selecting two rarely performed Russian operas for their autumn double bill. Stravinsky’s Mavra (1922) blends satire with suburban inconsequentialities while Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta (1892) mixes fantasy and myth; but both operas are characterised by an emotional directness which the young singers and musicians of the GSMD, under conductor and Head of Opera Studies Dominic Wheeler, successfully communicated.

A Russian double bill at the GSMD

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iolanta

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

I’m not sure that I agree, however, with director Kelly Robinson’s claim that both ‘Mavra and Iolanta are variants of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale involving a beautiful princess, an enchantment involving sleep and a handsome prince’. Tchaikovsky’s tale of the blind princess Iolanta and her awakening into light and love certainly presents a dream-like world and a tender portrait of female suffering, sadness and sensual passion worthy of a sentimental fairy-tale. But, Stravinsky’s Mavra is altogether more down-to-earth, with its pseudo-realistic setting and parodic scorn for the superficiality of the petty, provincial middle classes.

It’s true that Stravinsky may have had Sleeping Beauty on his mind during the composition of Mavra, for he was working on Tchaikovsky’s ballet score at this time, devising new orchestrations for Diaghilev’s production of Sleeping Beauty in London in November 1921. But, it was not the myth itself, rather the aesthetic that Tchaikovsky’s music represented that seeped into Mavra: an open letter from Stravinsky to Diaghilev in The Times in October 1921 avowed the modernist Stravinsky’s admiration for Tchaikovsky, and a further letter to Le Figaro praised Tchaikovsky and Glinka as being superior to the other nineteenth-century Russian nationalists. Mavra, based on a short story by Pushkin (‘The Little House at Kolomna’), is dedicated to the memory of Pushkin, Glinka and Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky described the opera as ‘Tchaikovskian in period and style’ - by which he meant the blend of Russian folk traditions and Western musical language and form that the older composer achieved in his later works.

With respect to Mavra, Robinson argues that Beauty’s sleep ‘is analogous to the lethargy and inward-directed focus of the teenager, the time before becoming an adult. Parasha, with her curiosity and growing fascination with love, but her unwillingness to seek love outside the home, and who draws the Hussar into the sanctuary ruled by her mother reveals her lack of readiness for the step toward self-hood symbolized in the waking of the “Princess” in the myth.’ This production did little to convince me of the merits of this reading of the opera - indeed it scarcely seemed to address this notion at all.

Instead, designer Bridget Kimak presents us with a 1950s bourgeois household in which a coquettish, fashion-conscious Parasha - decked out in floral Prom gown and pink pigtails - runs rings around her mother and their neighbour. The parochial pair - an eye-watering riot of clashing complementary colours and outlandish red hairdos - slump in front of their vintage TV console and, distracted by their complaints about domestic trivialities, the weather and the high cost of living, fail to notice when Parasha smuggles her Hussar love, Vassili, into the house in the guise of a new maidservant, Mavra. The update works well: if we ignore the issue of the servant, bourgeois preoccupations have probably changed little since Pushkin’s day, and Stravinsky’s parody of small town life rings true.

L-R Margo Arsan.jpgMargo Arsane as Parasha, Chloë Treharne as the Neighbour, Jade Moffat as Mother. Photo credit: Cliva Barda.

Margo Arsane’s Parasha is no Sleeping Beauty, although the soprano’s free-floating folk tune did - despite, initially, a slightly hard edge to the tone - evoke a dreamy wistfulness as she flicked through a fashion magazine, nonchalantly scattering random pages onto the tumbling towers of textiles upon which she was perched. Clearly, the household is in need of a housekeeper to bring the columns of hats and mountains of fabric under control: even the chandelier is strewn with debris. And, the cunning and resourceful Parasha knows just the person, and the plan, having pragmatically prepared a bra-rope to assist Vassili’s entrance through the window.

Arsane captured Parasha’s capriciousness and vivacity, and moved easily from the plaintive modality of her folk lament to the decorative exuberance of the role’s coloratura demands. However, though the opera was performed in English translation, sadly - as one fellow audience member was heard to remark - Arsane might as well have been singing in Hungarian, so weak was her diction; and this was a failing that was common to the cast, who at times struggled to be heard above the chugging rhythms and vamps of the wind-dominated instrumental accompaniment.

This was a particular problem for Jade Moffat, as Parasha’s Mother; her complaints about the dearth of good servants lay quite low in her voice and were lost within the orchestral texture. However, in the more sparsely accompanied passages, Moffat revealed a richly coloured mezzo soprano, and formed a neat comic double-act with Chloë Treharne’s Neighbour.

Guildhall School_Stravinsky Mavra_John Findon (c)Clive Barda.jpgJohn Findon as Vassili. Photo credit: Cliva Barda.

Vassili was exuberantly performed by tenor John Findon who had previously impressed in the role of the flirtatious fop, Oscar, in Martinů’s Alexandre bis in June earlier this year. Findon gave another characterful and technically assured performance. Vassili’s gypsy song of loneliness was ardent and his manner flamboyantly masculine. It wasn’t clear, however, why having lathered up shaving suds in a bucket he need to climb a step-ladder to shave; and, though, Vassili scarpered deftly when his cover was blown by the surprise return of Parasha’s mother, the swift ending felt somewhat anti-climactic.

Wheeler guided the instrumentalists nimbly through the ever-changing time signatures and rhythmic asymmetries, and he drew forth some of the liveliness and colour of Stravinsky’s inventive score. But there was neither quite enough jazzy vibrancy from the wind and brass, nor breathless excitement in the ensembles. Moreover, the repetitive, rugged folky accompaniments often overpowered the singers.

Robinson and Kimak swept away the household clutter revealing a minimalist set for Tchaikovsky’s final opera Iolanta, a one-act piece that he composed to form a double bill with The Nutcracker. Using plain, sliding screens, an invalid’s bed, black and yellow triangular hazard signs, and some futuristic scientific equipment, they suggest at once a convent, hospital and nuclear laboratory - as the chorus of twenty-six ‘orderlies, armour bearer’s administrators, nurses, nuns and scientists come and go, gathering fruit, tending the patient, conducting experiments. It’s a world far from the mountain region of southern France in the 15th century which was the original locale of the libretto, fashioned by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, from Henrik Hertz’s play ‘King René’s Daughter’. Gone, too, are the hedge roses and fruit trees which adorn Iolanta’s lush garden - the verdure reduced to a bunch of red and white blooms atop the coverlet of the princess’s coverlet. But, the retinal imagery - darting, iris-streaking beams of light; swirling bottomless dark pupil-pits - of K. Yoland’s video designers effect, at the opening and conclusion, a convincing translation to a fantastical zone where myth, magic, medicine and mystery collide.

Iolanta set.jpgPhoto credit: Cliva Barda.

Iolanta, daughter of the Provençal King René, has been blind from birth. To protect her from knowledge of her affliction, her father has secluded her from the world; the ladies-in-waiting who attend her are forbidden under pain of death to refer to mention the power of sight, or light. A Moorish physician, Ibn-Hakia, tells the King that he can cure Iolanta, but only if she realizes that she is blind. Iolanta has been betrothed to Robert Duke of Burgundy; the latter knows nothing of her condition and wishes to be released from this contract so that he can wed his beloved Mathilde. Ignoring warnings not to enter Iolanthe’s garden, Robert and his companion Count Vaudémont stumble upon Iolanta; Robert is afraid and flees but Vaudémont falls instantly in love. When he realises that she is blind, he describes the power of the visual sense to Iolanta. Learning of Vaudémont’s disclosure, the distraught King condemns him to death. To save her beloved, Iolanta undergoes the cure. Robert persuades the King to abandon the betrothal and the opera ends in matrimonial rejoicing and a hymn to God’s light.

JMSkillett Iolanta.jpgJoanna Marie Skillett as Iolanta. Photo credit: Cliva Barda.

For this half of the GSMD double bill, the Russian text was retained and the cast seemed to cope admirably with the linguistic demands. As Iolanta, Joanna Marie Skillett negotiated the parlando and arioso lines of the opening fluently. Her soprano has not quite enough lyrical fulsomeness to allow one to imagine her, yet, as Tatyana, but her fairly light, even voice was well-suited to evoking Iolanda’s outer fragility and inner passion, and as she gained in confidence Skillett deepened the poignancy of her portrayal.

Dominick Felix was a stirring Vaudémont, powerful throughout the range and with a glowing top. He wrung every drop of emotion from his affecting encounter with Iolanta - as when, singing of his infatuation, he asks the princess for a rose the colour of her cheeks and is gifted a white flower by the sightless girl. Their climactic duet - in which he explains the meaning of ‘light’, only to be answered by her insistence that she does not need light in order to praise the Creator - was a blaze of music brightness; as the duo’s melodies embraced one to a tremendous orchestral outpouring the effect was wonderfully affirmative.

Ireland Iolanta.jpgDavid Ireland as King René and Joseph Padfield as Ibn-Hakia. Photo credit: Cliva Barda.

David Ireland communicated both King René’s stubborn sternness and the softness of his filial love - his prayer for his daughter’s recovery was dark-toned and moving, and Ireland garnered our sympathy despite the misguidedness of the patriarch’s actions. As the Moorish Ibn-Hakia, Joseph Padfield displayed a very focused baritone; he made the most of the physician’s modally inflected aria. Baritone Dominic Sedgwick preened fittingly as Robert, launching into an impassioned panegyric to Mathilde which betrayed the Duke’s self-absorption.

In the subsidiary roles, as Iolanta’s companions soprano Anna Sideris (Brigitta), mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew (Laura) and Moffat (Marta) led a charming women’s ensemble lulling Iolanta to sleep. Tenor Eduard Mas Bacardit as Alméric, armour-bearer to King René, and bass Bertie Watson as Bertrand, doorkeeper to the castle, completed the strong cast.

The enlarged instrumental ensemble skilfully created Iolanta’s world of darkness - a world rich in the sensory stimulations of sounds, scents and touch - notably in the prologue where dark-veiled woodwind gave way to the unfolding threads of solo strings and harp. Wheeler created an atmosphere of considerable tenderness and sorrow, which only served to make the conclusion, when all share a transfiguring vision of ‘the light’, even more spiritually uplifting.

Claire Seymour

Stravinsky: Mavra
Margo Arsane (Parasha); John Findon (Vassili); Jade Moffat (Mother); Chloë Treharne (Neighbour)

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Joanna Skillett (Iolanta); Dominick Felix (Vaudémont); Dominic Sedgwick (Robert); David Ireland (King René); Joseph Padfield (Ibn-Hakia); Anna Sideris (Brigitta); Bianca Andrew (Laura); Jade Moffat (Marta); Eduard Mas Bacardit (Alméric); Bertie Watson (Bertrand); Chorus (of orderlies, armour bearers, administrators, nurses, nuns and scientists).

Kelly Robinson - director, Dominic Wheeler - conductor, Bridget Kimak - designer, Declan Randall - lighting designer, K. Yoland - video designer.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama Silk Street Theatre; Monday 31st October 2016.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):