Director Kelly Robinson believes that Stravinsky’s Mavra and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta are both variants of the Sleeping Beauty story, even if the relationship with the fairy tale is less obvious in the case of the former. In this production for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, however, designer Bridget Kimak finds a further way of connecting the two works by ensuring that both operas take place on the same mildly sloping stage. This slope can do many things from injecting an additional sense of dynamism into the proceedings to disconcerting us so that we fully appreciate the gravity of the situation. As a result, it proves a suitable device for linking these two emotionally disparate works.
Mavra is set broadly in the 1960s with Parasha’s mother’s house being piled so high with clothes and plates (the latter are amassed on giant ‘skewers’) that it takes on an almost surreal quality. The cleverness, however, derives from the fact that, even if the set-up seems to invite hyperbole, the emotions are rendered both convincingly and powerfully. So, while Vassili may be wearing a cleaner’s dress so that he can be with Parasha by pretending to be a maid, their scene alone feels very tender and emotional. This is precisely because in it nothing is hammed up, which would make their feelings for each other appear less genuine. In fact, the subtle approach to this scene actually makes it far funnier as just occasionally it hits us that Vassili is engaged in the most heartfelt expression of love while being dressed as a cleaning lady! Indeed, the fact that he is willing to make such a ‘sacrifice’ to be with the one he loves in itself reveals the sincerity of his feelings in that moment.
Elsewhere, the production is extremely slick, dynamic and amusing as Margo Arsane with her sweet and agile soprano and John Findon with his large, commanding tenor acquit themselves extremely well as Parasha and Vassili. Jade Moffat and Chloë Treharne also display rich mezzo-sopranos as the Mother and Neighbour respectively, while enunciation is reasonable, even if any weaknesses do show because the performance is in English with no surtitles.
Iolanta, sung in Russian, is also set in the 1960s. The princess’ enclosed garden looks like a modern private ward but old speakers hanging at the sides, the psychedelic colours generated by Declan Randall’s lighting, and the contraptions swinging overhead that at one time would have seemed ‘futuristic’, all allude to this decade. The chosen setting proves perfect because it highlights the contrast between the caring attitude of the women who look after Iolanta (here they are nuns suggesting that this is the hospital wing of a convent) and the barren life that she leads as a consequence of being sheltered from the truth. This is because wards can be sterile places, and here we see how Iolanta is literally screened off from the world.
The singers respond to the area and the astute direction to portray the characters extremely sensitively. As Iolanta, Joanna Marie Skillett puts in a stunning performance as her soprano displays richness and depth before soaring high with a clean yet almost spiritual sound. David Ireland is similarly splendid as King René, with a strong bass-baritone that reveals great maturity as it combines superb shaping of phrases with a broadness of sound. Dominick Felix excels as Vaudémont with a ringing tenor that proves marvellously expansive, Dominic Sedgwick and Joseph Padfield are equally fine as Robert and Ibn-Hakia respectively, while the orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Dominic Wheeler, is on excellent form.
Casts vary over the run. For further details visit the Guildhall School of Music and Drama website.