For the closing bonanza of its 2008 season, Opera Holland Park has continued what feels like an emerging Tchaikovsky cycle – after truly excellent productions of Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades in recent years – with Iolanta, the composer's final opera.
Originally designed as part of a double bill that also included The Nutcracker, Iolanta was initially more favourably received than its now better-known balletic companion.
Iolanta has quite a lot going for it: the situation of the main character, a blind princess whose impediment has been kept secret from her all her life, is rather touching; there are some excellent concerted numbers, in addition to a couple of Tchaikovsky's finest arias; and the orchestration is expert (who couldn't thrill to the fanfares signalling the entrance of the King?).
But in this case, I feel that posterity knows best. Although the piece is in one act, it seems overlong and sprawling, with a drawn-out exposition only overcome in the latter stages by an increase in dramatic pressure. Not all the music is out of the composer's top drawer: I find the recitative sections dull and ill-defined, and the arias of Iolanta and Vaudemont are forgettable compared to those of King Réne and Robert. Then there's the story, which is on the one hand paper-thin and on the other a little peculiar: though the symbolism is not lost on me, there's something odd about a girl who's been blind all her life suddenly being able to see because she develops the desire to do so.
The last time I saw Iolanta was at the Proms a few years ago, when Welsh National Opera presented it in concert alongside extracts from The Nutcracker. Annilese Miskimmon's production for Holland Park is reliable, but in a way I preferred being able to focus on the music in WNO's concert rather than being faced with the opera's unavoidable dramaturgical problems in this staging. The action is rather static, all taking place in King Réne's garden, and although Miskimmon has the actors moving round fairly well, the lighting is a bit murky (in fact, it would suit the opening scene of Pelléas et Mélisande, which the company plans to do in 2010, very well). The trees and other details of Nicky Shaw's set were evocative, but I longed to be able to see the singers' faces more clearly and felt that this was an obstacle to engaging with the performance more fully.
Vocally, this was a mixed experience. Peter Auty was excellent as Vaudemont, singing with ardent tone and true emotion, even if a few of the top notes were slightly pinched, and the redoubtable, full-toned Mark Stone was cruelly underused as Robert. However, Mikhail Svetlov did not match the high level of performance he delivered in L'amore dei tre Re last year, the wide tessitura of Réne's music stretching his bass to its limits. Orla Boylan was slightly disappointing in the title role: the music is well within her grasp, and on occasion she let rip and electrified, but overall I found her vocal performance underpowered. Apologies were made for Toby Stafford-Allen as Ibn-Hakia, suffering from a cold, but I thought he paced himself well and sang with style even without taking his ailment into consideration. Smaller roles were solidly sung by Keel Watson (Bertrand), Carole Wilson (Martha) and Aled Hall (Alméric).
Stuart Stratford's feel for this music is impeccable and he inspired some stirring moments from the cast, especially in the choral numbers. However, the City of London Sinfonia had a tendency to drown out the singers during their solos and duets and I felt that Stratford could have accompanied a bit more sensitively in this respect, though the orchestration is rather lavish.
The CLS had previously distinguished themselves in the pre-interval performance of Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella, which was programmed to fill out the evening. It's great material for the orchestra, who revelled in Stravinsky's neoclassical structures and harmonies, excellently led by Straford here, but I really don't feel the coupling was beneficial. Although it's short, and I guess that audiences might not feel they had been given much for their money with Iolanta alone, I think it is substantial enough fare for one evening for me (just as L'amore dei tre Re was last year).
Regina Wielingen's dull, derivative and pretentious choreography did nothing to enhance the score of Pulcinella, which might better have been given without any dancing. Too often the eight dancers just wandered about the stage or sat on chairs at the side of it; there was no set or scenery to speak of, the backdrop for Iolanta having been covered by a black curtain. Lively, if not always accurate, performances from the dancers could not overcome the lack of substance or genuine response to the text; the production is described in the programme as a 'classically inspired contemporary dance piece', but it was surely already a classically-inspired contemporary ballet in Massine and Stravinsky's hands (they used music attributed to Pergolesi and an eighteenth-century commedia dell'arte libretto as the basis of the work).
So although the performers did their best, the Pulcinella half of the evening is best left forgotten: the often stimulating chance to see Iolanta fully staged is the reason to attend the double bill, a strong end to another prestigious season by the underrated summer opera festival. Next year's offerings include Kata Kabanova and Roberto Devereux: not to be missed.