This marvellous double bill of Il Segreto di Susanna, and Iolanta at Opera Holland Park combines a delightful romp about a young woman whose husband doesn’t realise she smokes, and Tchaikovsky’s far deeper drama about a girl who doesn’t realise she is blind.
Beautiful productions for both, the first in a staging by John Wilkie with gloriously colourful designs by takis, superbly lit by Mark Jonathan. As the young couple in the first opera, Richard Burkhardt made an impassioned husband (albeit keen that his wife confess about her secret lover) and Clare Presland a spirited Susanna, exhibiting a melodious passion for the subtle caresses of her (Turkish) cigarettes. In the non-vocal role of her confidant the butler, John Savournin’s witty acting was fully attuned to the nuances of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s score, given a very lively performance by the City of London Sinfonia under the excellent baton of John Andrews.
It made a charmingly vivacious prelude to the contrasting tempo and gentleness of Tchaikovsky’s final opera Iolanta, written at the same time he composed Nutcracker. The latter is usually thought to be far more appealing, even musically superior, but the composer himself regarded Iolanta far more highly, and this simple production by Olivia Fuchs, also with designs by takis and cleverly lit by Mark Jonathan, gave it far more power than I have previously seen in a concert performance. The grey dresses of the ladies-in-waiting helped convey to us her sense that something is missing, and the visual obscurity of her bedroom added to the illusion that her nurse and ladies can see what she cannot. The king who has confined her in this benevolent state of ignorance was strongly sung by Mikhail Svetlov, if a little weak on the lower register, and Ashley Riches gave a superb portrayal of the doctor he brings in to see if she can be cured.
Wonderful singing from the chorus, and strong portrayals of the gatekeeper by Barnaby Rea, and the Duke of Burgundy by Grant Doyle. His friend Count Vaudémont, who falls in love with and awakens the blind princess, was superbly sung by David Butt Philip, and Iolanta herself was sung and portrayed most beautifully by Natalya Romaniw, who gave her a gripping power as she responds to Vaudémont’s revelations about a world she knows nothing of. Their awakening duet was outstanding, complemented by the marvellous of conducting Sian Edwards that fully conveyed the emotional pull of Tchaikovsky’s music.
The child’s view of the world in Nutcracker is superficial by comparison. This opera embodies it far more deeply, beautifully expressing the blindness as a metaphor for the child kept ignorant of anything but the limited experiences allowed by her parents. Unmissable — see the link for the few tickets that still remain.