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Reviews

23 Jul 2019

'Secrets and Lies': a terrific double bill at Opera Holland Park

If you need a sweet bonbon to accompany the canapés and champagne on a sparkling summer evening, then Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s one-act trifle is a safe bet, especially if presented, as at Opera Holland Park by director John Wilkie and designer takis, as a confection of pink and purple, and performed by two splendid singing actors.

Opera Holland Park double bill: Il segreto di Susanna and Iolanta

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Clare Presland as Countess Susanna

Photo credit: Ali Wright

 

Written in 1909, the intermezzo’s neoclassical wit may be attuned to its time, but Wilkie updates the action to the 1940s and places it in a swish panelled apartment (sensibly pushing the action to the front of the long OHP stage) furnished with a gramophone, chaise-longue and cocktail cabinet that attest to its owner’s moneyed leisure.

The plot, like the secret, is simple. Newly married Susanna is afraid to confess to her non-smoking, older husband that she has a nicotine habit and so resorts to various wiles to keep her secret vice hidden. Smelling tobacco, Count Gil assumes that there is no smoke without fire and accuses her of infidelity. When he uncovers her subterfuge, they share a cigarette. Not very PC these days, when smoking seems to be more shameful than marital betrayal, but a perfectly droll amusette.

John Savournin Sante.jpg John Savournin (Sante). Photo credit: Opera Holland Park/Ali Wright.

There’s a noticeable flavour of Fawlty Towers about the OHP proceedings, as two maids and John Savournin’s deliciously tongue-in-cheek, long-suffering manservant, Sante (a non-speaking role), dash about fulfilling domestic duties and maintaining domestic harmony.

Clare Presland’s Susanna is lyrical and light, but she works hard to project and finds a richer luxuriousness for the languorous aria, ‘O Gioia la Nube Leggera’, which sees her satisfy her Craven A craving and eulogise the nirvana of nicotine. Enrico Golisciani surely squandered his talents on libretto-writing, when the advertising industry, or Mills & Boon, might have reaped the rewards of his ripe repartee: “Oh, what a joy to follow with half-closed eyes, the fine cloud that rises in blue spirals, rises more delicately than a veil and seems like a golden illusion vanishing into the clear sky. The fine smoke caresses me, rocks me, makes me dream. I wish to taste your delight with a slow sweetness.”

Gil and Susanna.jpg Richard Burkhard (Count Gil) and Clare Presland (Countess Susanna). Photo credit: Opera Holland Park/Ali Wright.

Even though attired in a candyfloss-pink suit, Richard Burkhard sang with subtlety as Count Gil - no mean feat - moving swiftly through the speech-like passages and slipping suavely into more sumptuous mode for Gil’s extravagant paranoid outpourings.

If the opera requires two superb singing actors, then it also needs a conductor who can discern both the wit and the delicacy in the busy score and bring them deftly to the fore, which John Andrews did most tidily and stylishly at the helm of the City of London Sinfonia.

So, what to pair with the gossamer delights of Wolf-Ferrari’s trifle? Perhaps Ravel’s L’heure espagnole? Or, if one wants a more sombre counterpart, Poulenc’s tragic La voix humaine? Opera Holland Park plump for Tchaikovsky’s lyrical fairy-tale Iolanta, an altogether more dramatically, psychologically and musically ‘consequential’ work, and one which is far from ‘saccharine’.

Born blind, the princess Iolanta is kept ignorant of her disability by her father, King René, who confines her to the family’s estate and forbids all who come into contact with her to mention light or beauty in her presence. A sign above the gate to the garden threatens unwelcomed trespassers with death. When Iolanta’s betrothed, Robert Duke of Burgundy (who is unaware of her blindness and enamoured of another, Countess Mathilde of Lorrain) accidentally enters the King’s domain, with his friend Count Vaudémont, the latter is enchanted by the sleeping Iolanta. It’s a long journey from darkness to light but eventually, by dint of Vaudémont’s fortitude, the doctor Ibn-Hakia’s wisdom and the King’s forgiveness, Iolante’s gains the gifts of sight and light and love.

For an opera that closes with a choral rejoicing for God-given light, Olivia Fuchs’s production is an oddly dull and dismal visual affair: geometric slants replace garden scents and dangling lightbulb ropes substitute for rose trellises. Eschewing naturalism and the original locale, Fuchs and takis set the action in a 1940s hospital: Iolanta isn’t quite chained to the bed, but she might as well be … various drugs are administered to rend her unaware of her misfortunes and senseless of reality. Her nurse, Marta, robustly and warmly sung by Laura Woods, is a dour matronly figure straight out of Jane Eyre’s boarding school. The female chorus use bandages to cover their own eyes and gag their own voices. It’s grey and grim.

Romaniv and Butt Philip.jpg Natalya Romaniv (Iolanta) and David Butt Philip (Count Vaudémont). Photo credit: Opera Holland Park/Ali Wright.

Fortunately, it’s Tchaikovsky’s emotionally charged Romanticism that calls the shots and drives the drama. More fortunately still, OHP has found a central pair of romantic leads made in heaven. Who needs Netrebko and Kaufmann, or Gheorgiu and Alagna, when we can have Natalya Romaniw (Iolanta) and David Butt Philip (Count Vaudémont), a veritable Romantic dream-team? They may have been attired in white shapeless nightdress and grey stuffy suit respectively, but their glorious singing was overflowing with the fresh, vivacious and sharply defined palette of the Baroque artists so beloved by the Pre-Raphaelites. The vocal brushstrokes were smooth, sustained and sumptuous. Both paced their characterisation and development effectively: their climactic duet was almost overwhelmingly impassioned and beautiful.

Ashley Riches Doctor.jpgAshley Riches (Ibj-Hakia). Photo credit: Opera Holland Park/Ali Wright.

Alongside Romaniw and Butt Philip, Grant Doyle was a persuasive Robert, Mikhail Svetlov tempered patriarchal authority with credible humility, and Ashley Riches delivered Ibn-Hakia’s monologue with considerable eloquence.

Iolanta is a long ‘one-acter’ though. At times the flimsy plot can sag under the opera’s musical weight, and the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Sian Edwards, weren’t consistently up to its demands. Iolanta was surely a mis-matched pairing with Wolf-Ferrari’s breezy froth: both offered much to admire but they pulled in different directions. Thankfully, the partnerships at the heart of each were absolutely singing from the same hymn-sheet and all that one required to confirm one’s faith, without a doubt, in Opera Holland Park’s vision and values.

Claire Seymour

Wolf-Ferrari: Il segreto di Susanna
Countess Susanna - Clare Presland, Count Gil - Richard Burkhard, Director - John Wilkie, Sante - John Savournin, Maids - Naomi Kilby, Kirsty McLean; Director - John Wilkie, Conductor - John Andrews, Designer - takis, Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan, City of London Sinfonia.

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Iolanta - Natalya Romaniw, Count Vaudémont - David Butt Philip, King René - Mikhail Svetlov, Robert - Grant Doyle, Ibn-Hakia - Ashley Riches, Alméric - Charne Rochford, Bertrand - Barnaby Rea, Marta - Laura Woods, Brigitta - Julia Hamon, Laura - Helen Brackenbury; Director - Olivia Fuchs, Conductor - Sian Edwards, Designer - takis, Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan, Opera Holland Park Chorus, City of London Sinfonia.

Opera Holland Park, London; Monday 22nd July 2019.

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