Tchaikovsky’s last opera Iolanta occupies an uneasy place in the canon. The composer himself was not entirely happy with it, confessing that the tale of medieval knights and ladies captured his imagination “but not my heart”. Rimsky-Korsakov wasn’t impressed with it either; indeed he complained about the resemblance of the opera’s central and closing theme to that of a song by Anton Rubinstein, missing the point that it was probably a homage: Rubinstein’s song opens with the line: “Open up my jail cell, let me see the light of day” – singularly apt as Tchaikovsky’s opera is all about breaking out from the dark prison of blindness into the glorious light.

Samantha Quillish (Iolanta) and Shengzhi Ren (Vaudémont) © Robert Workman
Samantha Quillish (Iolanta) and Shengzhi Ren (Vaudémont)
© Robert Workman

Whatever his misgivings, Tchaikovsky found the 1892 first-night audience preferred his one-act opera to its companion piece, his ballet The Nutcracker. How times have changed. Today, the story of the king’s daughter who must never be told she is blind seems mawkish, even cruel, and its resolution, where loves helps her gain her sight, just trite and sentimental. Nonetheless, we fall for its charms every time because Tchaikovsky simply can’t help but write wonderful tunes and stir our emotions with his corkscrewing harmonies and vivid orchestration.

Central to the success of the piece is, of course, Iolanta herself and Royal Academy Opera’s dual cast production has (in Cast 1) a fine portrayal from soprano Samantha Quillish. She needs to work on her phrasing but the voice is warm and silky and she’s a fluent, convincing actress. Opposite her is tenor Shengzhi Ren, as Vaudémont, the lover knight who reveals her blindness. This is a truly exciting voice, thrilling in its ardour and impressively strong, right through the register. Similarly, his companion Robert, Duke of Burgundy (Sung Kyu Choi) is a lithe and flexible baritone, qualities also abundant in the bass Niall Anderson, as Bertrand the doorkeeper, and in contralto Leila Zanette, as his wife Martha.

Emilie Cavallo, Leila Zanette, Samantha Quillish and Yuki Akimoto © Robert Workman
Emilie Cavallo, Leila Zanette, Samantha Quillish and Yuki Akimoto
© Robert Workman

Baritone Darwin Leonard Prakash excels as the physician Ibn-Hakia, but bass Thomas Bennett, as King René, had trouble controlling his big sound, his shaky top spoiling the great rising phrase in the opera’s best aria,“Gospod’ moy, yeslin greshen ya” (‘O Lord, if I have sinned’).

Conductor Gareth Hancock draws some pungent playing from the Royal Academy Sinfonia, with woodwind alert and peppery and strings suitably responsive to the Technicolor score. Oliver Platt directed with intelligent economy and Alyson Cummins’ unfussy design was beautifully lit by Jake Wiltshire. It was both intriguing and irritating to enclose Iolanta’s secret garden in a sort of portable greenhouse; intriguing because it gave plenty of scope for varied staging, but irritating because its glass reflected the lights straight into the audience; I would say it was blinding but that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Olivia Warburton (The Child) © Robert Workman
Olivia Warburton (The Child)
© Robert Workman

The same production team brought us the second half of the evening, Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, a joyful romp from start to finish, with some really imaginative puppetry and movement directed by Emma Brunton. Mezzo Olivia Warburton as the naughty boy was enchanting; mischievous, bored, vindictive, frightened, she packed every emotion into 37 frenzied minutes as wronged objects (clock, chair, the fire) came alive in the child’s room and attacked him. He seeks refuge in the garden, only to find a host of animals and trees force him to repent his cruelty towards them. This was ensemble work at its best, the chorus rushing around the stage as bats, frogs and dragonflies in a beautifully choreographed mayhem.

Lina Dambrauskaite (Fire) © Robert Workman
Lina Dambrauskaite (Fire)
© Robert Workman

Special mention for soprano Alexandra Oomens as the princess torn from her storybook (and dressed to look like Iolanta; a nice touch), soprano Lina Dambrauskaite as a spectacularly vibrant fire, and mezzo Tabitha Reynolds, whose appearance as the naughty boy’s mother was all too brief. Some wobbly moments in the orchestra will disappear during the run. Catch it if you can.




****1