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2 August 2019

Il Segreto di Susanna / Iolanta at Opera Holland Park: a sublime night

By Simon Callow

Wolf-Ferrari’s slyly witty Il Segreto di Susanna of 1909 and Tchaikovsky’s heartfelt and ultimately epic Iolanta (1891) make very odd bedfellows – superficially, at any rate. As it happens, at its première the Tchaikovsky was originally paired with something even less suitable, The Nutcracker ballet. Both were considered flops, for different reasons. Opera Holland Park’s current double bill, on the contrary, is a huge success, one of the best evenings this endlessly enterprising open air opera house has ever fielded, both musically and dramatically.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) was, as his name suggests, half-Italian and half German. Before the First World War, he was one of the most performed opera composers in the world, with 13 operas and a great deal of chamber and orchestral music to his credit – now, he is largely unknown. Until the early Seventies, a handful of delicious operatic entr’actes and overtures were still played and indeed recorded; no longer, alas. Il Segreto di Susanna is his only opera to have been regularly recorded, though very rarely performed live. And it turns out to possess charm and wit in spades, a great deal of striking – not to say quirky – scoring and immensely accomplished vocal writing for the two principals, and a sure theatricality. The form is that of a boulevard comedy of infidelity; the twist is that Susanna is betraying the husband she has recently married not with a lover but with a packet of cigarettes.

This premise must have been very racy in 1901. Then, as smoking among both sexes became the norm quite soon after, the comedy would have become rather limp. Now, however, in a world in which smoking is all but outlawed, it feels almost prophetic – knowing laughter rings out almost from the first couple of minutes and it continues unabated to the end. The production is deft and elegant: designer takis ingeniously spreads the flat – painted in a sort of calamine lotion pink – across the vast width of the Holland Park stage, but never strains credibility. The score is a clever, multifaceted thing, with delicious parodies of Italian opera plus a few digs at Wolf-Ferrari’s contemporaries. Clare Presland and Richard Burkhard negotiate their not undemanding roles at the Countess and Count admirably, and execute the physical gags with panache and precision (as does John Savourninin the silent role of the butler, a performance that owes something to the French film The Artist). Remarkably, both singers smoke like chimneys during the action, which is very game of them. Most singers would rather cross the road than share a pavement with a smoker.

For Iolanta, the stage, again designed by takis, has acquired depth. It is no longer pink, and we are in one of the most familiar locations on the modern operatic stage: a hospital. There is no hospital in the libretto (written by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest), which is a pretty straight rendition of the Danish playwright Henrik Hertz’s King René’s Daughter. Written in 1845, it anticipates by half a century the Symbolist theatre of Maurice Maeterlinck, evoking a fairy tale world with a gallant knight, a duke, a blind princess, a widowed king. Iolanta is the king’s daughter; she lives in a garden, fiercely protected by her father from the knowledge of her blindness. She has been engaged to a nobleman who has never seen her; his friend – in the play called Sir Tristan, a decade before Wagner’s opera – comes with him to the castle, and falls in love with her, as she does with him. Meanwhile, an Arabic doctor has been summoned to see whether she can be cured of her blindness. His verdict is that she can see again if she really wants to, but this involves acknowledging that she is blind. Finally she does, is cured and united with her lover.

Olivia Fuchs transposes the play’s and indeed the opera’s world so that the action all takes place in or around a hospital ward; but despite the familiarity of the approach, it is done with directness, passion and commitment. The score – the composer’s last opera – is one of the highest inspiration: melodious, vividly characterised and charged with a unique atmosphere, tender, exalted and poetic. He and Modest had sat many nights at the bedside of their morphine-addicted niece and the work is shot through with palpable compassion. The orchestral writing is even by his high standards brilliantly inventive, with particularly rapturous writing for the winds. The City of London Sinfonia, focussed and spurred on by conductor Sian Edwards, fell on it with ardour.

It is a great opera for singers, and the production is blessed with three quite exceptional voices in the leading roles – all OHP veterans, the tenor David Butt Philip as Vaudémont, the bass-baritone Mikhail Svetlov as the King, and the ravishingly expressive Natalya Romaniw in the title role, all riding high on the ecstatic utterances of their characters. The casting is superb in depth, and the chorus, which comes into its own during the glorious last ten minutes if the opera, is equally inspired. A sublime night. I would defy anyone not to be swept away by what opera uniquely has to offer, and what Opera Holland Park so enterprisingly purveys in its sylvan glade.

Il Segreto di Susanna / Iolanta continues at Opera Holland Park until Saturday 3 August

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