Much to Savour in the Royal Academy’s Tchaikovsky and Ravel Double Bill

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky and Ravel: Soloists, Royal Academy Opera Chorus and Sinfonia / Gareth Hancock (conductor). Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London, 18.3.2019. (MB)

Iolanta (c) Robert Workman


Director – Oliver Platt
Designs – Alison Cummins
Lighting – Jake Wiltshire
Movement and Puppetry – Emma Brunton

Tchaikovsky, Iolanta,

Iolanta – Samantha Quillish
Brigitta – Emilie Cavallo
Laura – Yuki Akimoto
Marta – Leila Zanette
Vaudémont – Shengzhi Ren
Alméric – Joseph Buckmaster
Robert – Sung Kyu Choi
Ibn-Hakia – Darwin Leonard Prakash
Bertrand – Niall Anderson
King René – Thomas Bennett

Ravel, L’Enfant et les sortilèges

L’enfant – Olivia Warburton
La princesse, La chauve-souris – Alexandra Oomens
Le feu, Le rossignol – Lina Dambrauskaitė
La théière, Le rainette, Le petit vieillard – Ryan Williams
Maman – Tabitha Reyonolds
La tasse chinoise, La libellulue – Hannah Poulsom
La bergère, Une pastourelle, La chouette – Aimée Fisk
La chatte, L’écureuil – Gabrielė Kupšytė
L’horloge comtoise, Le chat – James Geidt
Le fauteuil, L’arbre – Will Pate

Tchaikovsky’s one-act Iolanta seems to have gained in popularity recently. London, at any rate, has two different productions this year: this, at the Royal Academy of Music, and at Holland Park this summer. As ever, the question with a one-act opera is what, if anything, to pair it with. (That hardly applies with Salome or Elektra, though couplings have been known, but it will generally do so with shorter works.) Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges is a popular choice, and rightly so, from the one-act stable. Without much – although not without any – in the way of overt connection being made, the two operas complemented each other nicely, both proving excellent showcases for their young singers, both proving substantially more than that too.

Oliver Platt, one of our most accomplished young directors – last year, I saw two(!) fine productions of Così fan tutte (here and here) – once again offers us stagings both intelligent and involving. Like their hero(ine)s, they take their own paths, yet where those paths intersect, the results are thoughtful and intriguing. Iolanta seems to me greatly misunderstood – or at least too often mostly understood in a way that limits rather than sets it free. The subtext seems obvious – a blind girl, kept safe by her father, eventually freed from her imprisonment by a stranger – and yet, too often ignored. Here, it certainly is not, a greenhouse, a place of hothouse care and incarceration, placed firmly on stage, its flourishing yet stifled plants both inspiring and warning, could Iolanta but see them. Likewise, the surgical gloves of her companions, weirdly static in aestheticised presentiment of Maeterlinck and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. But when, finally she can see, finally she can become – in the eyes of men, in the eyes of society more generally – a ‘woman’, Iolanta turns suddenly away from the sun’s blinding rays, from adulthood. It is too late: orchestra and chorus have rejoiced, she gives out a cry of anguish, but no one cares – other, perhaps than us, in the audience. Now she is on her own, awakened, seeing; or rather, captive once again, this time without the alleged protection and solace of childhood.

The boy in L’Enfant et les sortilèges – a trouser role, naturally, in this most elegantly queer of operas – is on his own too; or is he? This is certainly an opera very much about childhood, an irredeemably adult idea, rather than a children’s opera. And so there is, or should be, always something enticing and yet disturbing about that penetration of an imagined child’s lair, here very much centred upon the imaginings of his bedroom. Here, the constructivism of our imagination, that of the work’s creators, most likely that of the ‘child’ too, is put centre stage. We see, lightly worn, the workings: puppetry, other short-trouser children, books, fabrics, a tent from his – our? – own life, creating a world that is, yes, imagined, but also equally his, Ravel’s, Colette’s, our own. It is never predictable, always with an element of the dream, of the unconscious, yet one can hazard a guess where it has come from, at least in retrospect. We are all psychoanalysts now, are we not? And when the Princess emerges, from the tent in the garden – here, as in Iolanta, a place of magical enticement, which may or may not be quite what it seems – she is dressed as Iolanta was. Will the boy do to her what the earlier princess’s prince charming was set to do to her? Most probably: not, however, quite yet, for childhood, whatever that might be, and its enchantments, its gifts, still reign. Light and dark take a related, yet different path. At least, we believe so…

These are not in any way easy operas for students, however accomplished, to perform. The young musicians of the Royal Academy acquitted themselves very well indeed. Without repeating the cast list, I should like to mention a handful of singers who stood out for me. All, however, performed creditably, whether individually or as a company. Samantha Quillish’s Iolanta was heartfelt, moving, possessed both of heft and subtlety: everything, at least, anyone could reasonably have asked. Shengzhi Ren’s Vaudémont proved honest, ardent, again moving: just what the Tchaikovsky brothers wanted, allowing us, should we wish, to question their assumptions whilst affording them the dignity of being taken seriously. Thomas Bennett’s King René grew in strength and compassion as the evening progressed, whilst Sung Kyu Choi’s Robert offered quite a taste of what might have been, had characters’ choices been different. Olivia Warburton’s Child (L’Enfant) impressed in every possible way: her French, her demeanour, her elegance of line. This was a character, both ‘real’ and constructed, in whom one could believe, ably supported and abetted by a near faultless cast.

It was perhaps inevitable that the orchestra, conducted by Gareth Hancock, would sometimes fall a little short. Orchestras twice its size will find these tough nuts to crack, let alone together. There was much to savour, though, and if I sometimes missed the flexibility of the finest Tchaikovsky performances, that was hardly the point here. Hancock supported his singers with skill and care, permitting them, like those flowers in the greenhouse and the garden, to bloom as they would. As to what happens next, we shall see – and hear.

Mark Berry

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