Welsh National Opera made a rare but welcome appearance at the Proms with a double bill of works by Tchaikovsky: excerpts from his last ballet (The Nutcracker) and a complete concert performance of his last opera (Iolanta). Their Russian opera series is going from strength to strength, with well-received performances of The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin in recent years, and next year they’re staging Mazepa.
Who would have thought that the Welsh could outdo the Kirov in their own repertoire? Compared to the two recent Russian offerings by the Kirov, this performance of Iolanta was a much more competent and enjoyable effort.
The opera is a fairy tale, trying in nicely with this year’s equivalent Proms theme. The Princess Iolanta was born blind, but her father the king has kept this from her. A doctor tells the king that her only hope is to be told of her condition, and if she really wants to recover, there is a chance that she might. One day, along comes a handsome knight, who tells her how beautiful the world is – and it all ends happily ever after.
The story has been described as flimsy in the last two days, both in the programme notes and in a leading newspaper. But what do they expect of a fairy tale? I found it all extremely engaging, with Tchaikovsky’s careful structuring of the drama in one continuous act, lasting an hour and a half that went by remarkably quickly. The climactic love duet between Iolanta and Vaudémont (the Prince Charming character) was genuinely emotional, as Iolanta’s oblivion about her disability is the focus of the drama rather than the usual romantic clichés. Although the ending is predictable enough, the opera is so intense that one really wanted to find out whether the princess would regain her sight right up to the very end.
On the whole, this was a formidable cast, with several of the main singers in much better voice than any of the Kirov’s main players (Olga Borodina excepting).
Nuccia Focile was in radiant voice in the title role, with a remarkably secure top. I was surprised to find her so reluctant to interact with the other singers after such a great performance as Despina in last year’s Royal Opera Cos fan tutte, but perhaps she was trying to suggest the character’s blindness. Peter Hoare was the magnificent tenor lead as Vaudémont, acting and singing superbly and stopping the show with his big arioso – it would be good to hear more of him (more WNO engagements are planned).
Clare Shearer was magnificent as Marthe, Iolanta’s nurse – her deep contralto voice was truly commanding in the difficult lower register. Vladimir Moroz was one of the few genuine Russian members of the cast, and sounded it; he used his lyrical tone and baritonal power to impressive effect. The other singers were generally acceptable or more, though Pavel Baransky was disappointingly underpowered as the doctor Ebn-Hakia.
The orchestra of WNO took a little time to warm up in the Nutcracker excerpts, sounding really rough in the overture in fact. However, this was a well-chosen selection from the full ballet, including the transformation and battle scenes from Act I and the Pas de Deux from Act II which we normally don’t hear in suites from this ballet. The players warmed to the drama of these pieces, and were matched by the chorus in a heart-warming dedication to reviving the hopes of Iolanta, a work which should be heard more often.
Crowning the whole was the conducting of Vassily Sinaisky. If only more conductors were as self-effacing yet commanding, demanding yet appreciative of their players. Let’s hope the Proms brings next year’s WNO Mazepa to the Albert Hall in 2006 – the WNO Russian series is an artistic triumph.