For its final offering this summer, Opera Holland Park is signing off in style with a slick staging of Wolf-Ferrari’s pro-smoking Susanna’s Secret, capped by a blistering account of Tchaikovsky’s ultimate stage-work, Iolanta.
Wolf-Ferrari has done well by OHP’s supremos Michael Volpe and James Clutton, with the rare outing for The Jewels of the Madonna six years ago. Susanna’s Secret is less of a rarity, although it is another first for the company – and casting and production do it proud. Susanna’s dark secret is that she wants to keep her smoking habit from her husband Gil. He can smell tobacco everywhere and assumes the worst – an affair with a sixty-a-day lover. I was wondering what John Wilkie would do with an activity so thoroughly proscribed these days – something to do with vaping, perhaps? – but he plays the composer’s 1909 comic gem straight, or straight-ish, in a chic 1930s’ dolce vita salon, with fashion-victim Count Gil making his entrance in driving goggles and a pink suit, and his newly-wed contessa Susanna elegance personified in well-tailored style; the look is unmistakably Italian, observed with affection by designer takis.
Wilkie is impressively sure-footed in all the minutiae of a glamorous, loving, bickering, possessive power-couple, and his revisiting all the absurdly over-eroticised ritual of offering, lighting and smoking cigarettes is very funny. The performance never drops a stitch in its forty-five-minute duration, the Overture sparkles, there is one of opera’s most spectacular, blazing rows, and some heartfelt solos, not least Susanna’s hallucinogenic aria in praise of tobacco. Clare Presland brilliantly clouds Susanna’s confidence and vivacity as she battles with her cravings, she gives a lift of conversational nuance to every phrase, and if there was such a voice-type as a dark soubrette, Presland has it here, attached to an irresistible stage presence and incisive comic timing. Richard Burkhard deftly parries outrage and caricature as the jealous Gil, his fine singing never distends the comedy, and his switches to barely controlled lust for his exasperating wife hit the spot. John Savournin’s bass-baritone doesn’t figure in the silent role of the Count and Countess’s major domo Sante, but his portrayal of the spindly, wily servant with two masters, guiding the couple circuitously to jealousy-free bliss, is a complete joy. John Andrews and the City of London Sinfonia faithfully get the measure of the German-Italian’s score, froth with teeth poised between verismo and the sauciest operetta. Next up from OHP on the Wolf-Ferrari front? His Taming of the Shrew opera, Sly, perhaps?
It is, however, an unusual curtain-raiser to Iolanta, an hour-and-a-half of the most intense music Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The Met’s 2015 double-bill paired it with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, which gives an idea of Iolanta’s mythic, symbolist context. It also predates Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande by ten years, and one of these days perhaps there will be a production that honours its out-of-time setting in a cod-medieval Neverland.
OHP has mounted it before, in 2008, and now there is Olivia Fuchs’s production and takis’s modernist, abstract designs cover all the bases of darkness, light and awakening perfectly well. Fuchs makes it clear that blind Iolanta is the ultimate Daddy’s girl, literally kept in the dark in a remote castle by her father King René, who commands that his daughter must never know she is blind. As with Snow White or the Sleeping Beauty, love is the key to her release. This is high, gothic romance that trembles with Freudian ambiguities and significances, and Fuchs’s detailed direction gets under the opera’s skin, often to overwhelming effect. Perhaps she overplays the sensory deprivation McGuffin of the gags and the blindfolds Iolanta’s nurses wear, and the columns of light-bulbs and a tricksy neon-strip maze are on the simplistic side, but the overall impact of the staging takes all in its stride.
The production showcases some glorious, thrilling singing. Natalya Romaniw’s sumptuous, multi-coloured soprano effortlessly sails over the highly-wrought extremes of Iolanta’s puzzled unhappiness and passionate longings, heightened and galvanised by the unforgettable ardour of David Butt Philip’s tireless tenor heroics as Count Vaudémont, Iolanta’s knight in shining armour. Their ecstatic love-duet had me gasping with disbelief. Fuchs’s direction gives an insight into King René’s motivation in keeping his daughter under wraps, and Mikhail Svetlov’s large-scale portrayal moves easily from stand-and-deliver solidity to something much more insecure and troubling. Grant Doyle is in superb voice as Robert, Vaudémont’s friend and Iolanta’s childhood betrothed before he falls for someone with less baggage (to Vaudémont’s advantage). The peculiar role of the Arabian mystic doctor Ibn-Hakia is an underwritten flaw in the work and needs more penetration from Ashley Riches. Laura Woods is directed with considerable perspicacity as Iolanta’s companion Marta, and her singing is lovely. Sian Edwards is a fine Tchaikovsky conductor, and she and the CLS get to the heart of this layered score. Tchaikovsky finished it a year before his death, and its ambition and imagination leave us with one of music’s regretful ‘if-only’ conundrums.
This double-bill is one of OHP’s greatest evenings.