There’s a distinctly Slavic feel to London’s classical music venues this autumn; from Semyon Bychkov’s “Beloved Friend” project at the Barbican to Barrie Kosky’s joyously anarchic production of Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Royal Opera House, the variety of Russian classical music has been a delight. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama opened its season of student opera productions with one of those programmes that has become a distinct speciality of that conservatory, an operatic double bill of Mavra and Iolanta.

John Findon ('Mavra') and Margo Arsane (Parasha) © Clive Barda
John Findon ('Mavra') and Margo Arsane (Parasha)
© Clive Barda

Mavra was one of Stravinsky’s earliest major disasters; critics at the 1922 première, left cold by the work’s fluid style and almost vaudevillian nature, excoriated the odd 25-minute work, perhaps taking too seriously a piece that is, at heart, a bit of a playful tease. It’s a simple plot in the opera buffa mould that takes place within a bourgeoisie household: Parasha has a thing for the young cavalryman Vassily and takes advantage of the death of their help, an event much bemoaned by her mother, to smuggle in her beau disguised as Mavra, a servant with excellent references. All goes well until ‘Mavra’ gets caught in the unusually guilty act of shaving his face by the mother, and is promptly forced to make a quick exit via auto-defenestration. Surprisingly given its rarity, this is its third performance in the UK this year, following on from an appearance in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Myths and Rituals series and another double-bill at the RCS opposite Walton’s The Bear.

Kelly Robinson’s production was deftly choreographed and benefited from a marvellously chaotic set by Bridget Kimak which emphasised the cataclysmic effect that the loss of the previous servant had wrought on the household. Hyperbolic towers of dirty dishes balanced precariously over 50s television set, while a corner of the set was dedicated to a pile of dirty laundry that would have made even the most stereotypical of students blush. Margo Arsane’s Parasha was a bombshell with bubble-gum pink hair, letting a rope ladder adorned with sundry undergarments down to her lover. Arsane’s tonal clarity and perky delivery served her well, though diction needed much more attention in an English-language production without surtitles. As Vassily, John Findon hit the humour hard, seizing the opportunity to camp things up with obvious glee, and diction was good, but although there’s obvious power at the top of his voice, breath control needs to be watched. Jade Moffat’s Mother had colour, but was a little too underpowered, while Chloë Treharne didn’t get an opportunity to show off much more than an easy stage manner as the Neighbour. Quality of playing from the pit for a score that is quick to expose errors was remarkably good, though I wish that Dominic Wheeler had tamed the orchestral excesses in favour of the singers on occasion.

<i>Iolanta</i> at Guildhall School © Clive Barda
Iolanta at Guildhall School
© Clive Barda

It was a good amuse-bouche for the main event, Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta. Partnering it has always been problematic; it premiered with the composer’s ballet, The Nutcracker, most recently combined at the Opéra de Paris earlier this year, while the Guildhall performed it with Donizetti’s Rita back in 2011. For this production, Robinson moved the action to a private hospital/laboratory, high tech equipment draping down from the ceiling and medical scans of the eye projected intermittently on screens. Iolanta is the blind daughter of King René and is very carefully kept unaware of her condition, until the arrival of her reluctant betrothed, Robert, Duke of Burgundy, in love with another woman and his chum Count Vaudémont, the latter of whom is instantly smitten. After some snazzy treatments from the foreign doctor, Ibn-Hakia, and the additional incentive that if she doesn’t try hard enough to will her sight into existence Vaudémont will be executed, Iolanta gains her vision and gets to marry her count.

Joanna Marie Skillett (Iolanta) © Clive Barda
Joanna Marie Skillett (Iolanta)
© Clive Barda

Standing out for his noble, expressive bass-baritone was David Ireland, singing René. Exhibiting a fully developed range, expansive phrasing and an appealing awareness of the libretto, he shows plenty of promise. Joanna Marie Skillett was a moving Iolanta, colouring her voice with warmth and girlish curiosity. Her higher register was generally secure and soared over the orchestra, though there were one or two moments in Scene III where the voice seemed to lose focus, and the top became a little shrill. Full credit to her as well for strong acting. Dominick Felix sang earnestly as Vaudémont; his range had a tendency to show a clunky change of gear, but once at the top, it was generally pretty crisp. Dominic Sedgwick’s baritone, though smooth, wasn't quite there with Robert, lacking heft and inspiration.

The chorus gave a good showing and pit performance was again impressive, where Dominic Wheeler seemed determined to milk every drop of emotion from the score.