Opera Holland Park’s final production of the season sees the company doing what it does so well, giving us a Summer evening to treasure with the unearthing of a half-forgotten gem to high musical standards. Amongst an excellent cast, Irish soprano Orla Boylan is outstanding as the Rapunzel-like princess Iolanta, kept hidden away in a world deprived of sense and sensuality.
Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta is based on a very interesting conceit. The heroine is blind but doesn’t know it. Her father, the king, conspires to keep the truth from her and, with a mystical, magical element, a belief that blindness can be overcome by will-power, this is the stuff of fairy-tales. As such, it no doubt contains some deep truths and, certainly, the metaphor could be interpreted in any number of ways.
Cast in one 100-minute act, the opera comes right at the end of Tchaikovsky’s career, post both Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades, with echoes of other late works, including the fifth and sixth symphonies, as well as a thematic reaching-forward to the magical symbolism of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, written just a decade later. It finds Tchaikovsky at his most romantic and yearning, with floods of gorgeous melody and huge sweeps of lush orchestration.
OHP field an exceptionally strong leading cast: dashing and passion-filled Mark Stone, a thrillingly ringing tenor from Peter Auty, booming authenticity from Russian-American bass Mikhail Svetlov and, perhaps best of all, a superb Orla Boylan as the sad princess. The ensemble is strong and, under Stuart Stratford, the City of London Sinfonia blooming and fulsome.
Acting doesn’t reach quite the same levels, hampered by a staid and slightly obvious staging by Annilese Miskimmon that draws some giggles, although Modest Tchaikovsky’s foreshortened dramatic structure (a little too economical in places) has some responsibility. A sloping wall serves as woodland backdrop and barrier to the outside world and the two adventurers braving the threat of death by entering a forbidden kingdom brings last year’s Lakme strongly to mind.
The precedent for presenting Iolanta alongside a ballet goes back to the very beginning, with Tchaikovsky commissioned for a double-bill of both art forms. In that 1892 production the accompanying ballet was no other than The Nutcracker, which must have made for a very long evening. Here, the warm-up, and it feels like little more, is a newly-choreographed Pulcinella, based on Stravinsky’s striking neoclassical score.
Looking like delegates at a Star Trek conference, a group of attractive young dancers dance attractively to choreography by Regina Wielingen. The orchestra could have a little more bite and bounce and there’s a feel that they’re biding their time before the opera’s melodic onslaught.
Last year, OHP presented the similar-length L’amore dei tre Re on its own and without interval. While not underestimating the importance to an under-funded company of interval income, Iolanta could also hold its own and the focus would be all the greater. Nevertheless, this is a highly enjoyable evening and a great introduction, for many of us, to an opera worthy of wider exposure.