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Reviews

21 Mar 2019

New perceptions: a Royal Academy Opera double bill

‘Once upon a time …’ So fairy-tales begin, although often they don’t conclude with a ‘happy ever after’. Certainly, both Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, paired in this Royal Academy Opera double bill, might be said to present transformations from innocence and ignorance to experience and knowledge, but there is little that is saccharine about their protagonists’ journeys from darkness to enlightenment.

Iolanta and L’enfant et les sortilèges

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Samantha Quillish (Iolanta) and Shengzhi Ren (Vaudémont)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

Indeed, a tale of a secluded, blind princess kept ‘in the dark’ about her affliction by an overprotective (oppressive?) father, and thus denied the life and love that might cure her, has more than a touch of Angela Carter about it. Tchaikovsky’s tale of Princess Iolanta’s physical and spiritual awakening was fashioned by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, from Danish playwright Henrik Hertz’s drama ‘King René’s Daughter’, and while the libretto is hampered by some mawkish medieval allusions, any sentimentality is outweighed by the moving portrait of Iolanta’s sadness, suffering and sensuality.

Director Oliver Platt and designer Alyson Cummins suggest the young girl’s latent passion with minimal but effective means. A glasshouse bursting with verdant life intimates heated emotions and senses - colours, scents, tactility - which are the stuff of a life denied to Iolanta by the Provençal King René, who has threatened anyone who mentions sight or light with death, betrothed his daughter to Robert Duke of Burgundy (who wants out of the contract, so that he can marry his beloved Mathilde), and forbidden access to Iolanta’s garden. The ladies-in-waiting wear simple frocks that resemble nurses’ gowns, but their blue surgical gloves suggest a clinical coldness.

Marta and Iolanta garden.jpgLeila Zanette (Marta, centre), Samantha Quillish (Iolanta, right). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Samantha Quillish sang Iolanta’s arioso lines with delicacy in the opening garden scene, conveying the princess’s gentleness and purity, but her soprano has both depth and darkness and grew in fervency as Iolanta’s sensuality was awoken, passivity giving way to nascent but intense passion. As her father, Thomas Bennett made a good effort to strike a balance between the King’s patriarchal domination and paternal devotion, and demonstrated a pleasing bass, but one which still needs to develop a little more firmness and focus.

The two interlopers who bring light and life into Iolanta’s world brought energy and colour to the drama too. As Vaudémont - who ‘opens’ Iolanta’s eyes and to save whose life she agrees to undergo a cure for her blindness - Shengzhi Ren sang with power and ardency, and generally good intonation - just occasionally when rising to the heights he was a little under the note, but this was more than compensated for by vibrancy of tone and dramatic commitment. His extended duet with Quillish was rapturously redolent with hope and promise. Sung Kyu Choi brought vocal agility and colour to Robert’s single aria. Best of the chaps, though, was Darwin Leonard Prakash as Ibn-Hakia; the doctor’s monologue was notable for its expressive directness and strength of line.

Doctor and Father Iolanta.jpgDarwin Leonard Prakash (Ibn-Hakia) and Thomas Bennett (King René). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The smaller parts were well-sung. Leila Zanette had presence as Marta, and the light, fresh voices of Emilie Cavallo and Yuki Akimoto, as Iolanta’s friends Brigitta and Laura respectively, blended sweetly. The roles of Alméric, armour-bearer to King René, and Bertrand, door-keeper to the castle were competently assumed by Joseph Buckmaster and Niall Anderson.

There were some directorial mysteries and mis-hits, though. While thereis an otherworldly stillness, reminiscent of Pelléas et Mélisande, about Tchaikovsky’s final opera, the immobility of the RA chorus members - who seemed pretty much left to their own devices - was a weakness. More seriously, Platt seemed determined to make a ‘point’ at the close, but it wasn’t one that was in accord with the opera’s most obvious ‘meaning’. In the aforementioned climactic duet for Iolanta and Vaudémont, as the latter tries to explain the meaning of ‘light’ Iolanta insists that she does not need light in order to worship her God - and Tchaikovsky’s score goes into orchestral-illumination overdrive. In a ‘conclusive’ choric statement, the ensemble shares in the transfiguration of Iolanta’s vision. So, she, and they, and we, see the light in all senses of the phrase. Here, the princess’s enlightenment was accompanied not by a blaze of illumination but by a night sky, sparkling with celestial bodies. Well, it suggested spiritual fulfilment and rapture. But, Platt’s parting comment was to have Iolanta collapse in whimpering distress as the dawn sun rose. Surely, her new perception comes from love, not from literal vision. Is Platt suggesting that the former was false or illusory? If the production had been braver, it might have essayed a ‘dark’ ending by suggesting that Iolanta - like Pannochka in May Night (which Royal Academy Opera performed in 2016 ) - is really ‘of this world’, and cannot form a true relationship with Vaudémont; in which case an ambiguously bleak ending might have been more convincing.

Sortilege cats.jpgOlivia Warburton (L’enfant). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

By contrast, the illusions and disillusionments of childhood were depicted with unflinching honesty, in a beguiling production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, in which Olivia Warburton’s superb embodiment of the méchant’s journey from adolescent solipsism to a more mature empathy winningly balanced humour and pathos. Warburton - whom I have recently admired as Ino in the RAO’s Semele and in the title role of the London Handel Festival’s 2018 production of Teseo - sang with a pure tone - and lovely limpid French diction - that conveyed, initially, self-conviction and indignation, and latterly, vulnerability and awakening. She stomped, rioted, flinched and cowered with gamine gall and gullibility as l’enfant’s dreams of freedom morphed into a fearful dread, and the garden of promise became a gothic prison.

Dragonflies.jpgPhoto credit: Robert Workman.

Ravel’s opera is a perfect choice for a student production, offering as it does a range of divergent characters who must be swiftly embodied in voice, movement and costume; and, on this occasion singing, design and choreography came together with a directness and simplicity - and ‘dark undertone’ - which was compelling. Not so much whimsey as witchery. This was not a picture-book, cutesy childhood milieu: bookshelves and central bed were messy; matching tents on opposite sides of the stage spilled fire, frogs and other fantastic fare to taunt the petulant youngster; there was an underlying grittiness, as when the child angrily ripped down his paper-thin walls to ‘escape’ into the garden.

Fire.jpgLina Dambrauskaitė (Le feu). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Conductor Gareth Hancock whirled us through the rapidly succeeding episodes creating a dream-like disorientation and spontaneity. The vocal roles are ‘small’ in the sense of ‘brief’, but they really need to make their mark with succinct directness, and so they did. La bergère (Aimée Fisk) and Le fauteuil (Will Pate) combined vocal clarity and strength of purpose in escaping the mischievous imp with Louis quatorze dignity; James Geidt’s L’horloge comtoise was aptly piqued having had his pendulum pinched. The piquant dance between La théière (Ryan Williams) and La tasse chinoise (Hannah Poulsom) suggested that they shared a bitter brew rather than a jazzy syrup. Hand-puppets and dragon-fly wands conducted a surreal bombardment as the tormented animal kingdom bit back, the crudeness of the design perfectly capturing the unsophistication of the child’s world. Especial mention should go to Lina Dambrauskaitė whose Fire shone with the sort of gleaming vocal intensity and brightness that we heard last year when she sang the title role in Semele, and Alexandra Oomens who was a radiant and dramatically commanding Princess.

Having evoked Tchaikovsky’s strange sound world with security and expressiveness, the Royal Academy Sinfonia were occasionally challenged by some of the many demands that Ravel makes of the instrumentalists, but they conjured the varied musical styles with flair and colour.

Claire Seymour

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Iolanta - Samantha Quillish, Brigitta - Emilie Cavallo, Laura - Yuki Akimoto, Marta - Leila Zanette, Vaudémont - Shengzhi Ren, Alméric - Joseph Buckmaster, Robert - Sung Kyu Choi, Ibn-Hakia - Darwin Leonard Prakash, Bertrand - Niall Anderson, King René - Thomas Bennett.

Ravel: L’enfant et les sortilèges
L’enfant - Olivia Warburton, La princesse/La chauve-souris - Alexandra Oomens, Le feu/Le rossignol - Lina Dambrauskaitė, La théière/La rainette/Le petit vieilliard - Ryan Williams, Maman - Tabitha Reynolds, La tasse chinoise/La llibellule - Hannah Poulsom, La bergère/Une pastourelle/La chouette - Aimée Fisk, La chatte/L’écureuil - Gabrielė Kupšytė, L’horloge comtoise/Le chat - James Geidt, Le fauteuil/L’arbre - Will Pate.

Director - Oliver Platt, Conductor - Gareth Hancock, Designer - Alyson Cummins, Lighting Designer - Jake Wiltshire, Movement and Puppetry - Emma Brunton, Royal Academy Opera Chorus, Royal Academy Sinfonia.

Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London; Monday 18th March 2019.

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