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S&H Opera Review

Tchaikovsky Iolanta
and Rossini The Silken Ladder; 5 November 2001, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

Tchaikovsky Iolanta ECOV soloists and Ensemble with Warsaw Philharmonic conducted by Hans Rotman. Live Performances August 1993 at European Centre for Opera & Vocal Arts, Ghent. CPO 999 456-2 (PGW)

Tchaikovsky's tenth and final opera, Iolanta, was originally composed as part of a double bill with his Nutcracker ballet. At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the tried and proven 'double bill' team of Clive Timms conducting and Stephen Medcalf directing did as well as could be with the Rossini in English, and sensationally well with Tchaikovsky in Russian. La Scala di Seta was given in a jokey English update by Clive Timms, with the Irish singer Ailish Tynan a stylish Giulia, and plenty of fun with doors and ladder, but the perilous difficulties of Rossini betrayed the orchestral violins and several of the singers. It was Tchaikovsky's night and a worthy Russian sequel to the Guildhall School's remarkable Rimsky Snowmaiden in March.

Iolanta (1891) treats the story of a blind princess, kept from knowing that she lacked sight, eventually cured by a 'famous Moorish doctor', just in time to save her lover from death; an evocative tale which has inspired effective, simple staging and lighting by Laura Hopkins and Simon Corder. The singing in Russian by the Guildhall School's multi-national cast, which must owe a great deal to Lada Valesova's coaching, sounded comfortable and convincing (far more so than a lot of the English in The Silken Ladder).

Iolanta (Camilla Roberts), Adrian Dwyer (Vaudemont) & Joao Fernandes (King René) headed a cast that would do credit to a larger house, and the management of the basically conventional stage movement was so true and unselfconscious that the whole was continually absorbing and moving, even though few of us would have been able to follow the text and the Guildhall School cannot yet afford surtitles (they might not even want them?).

The music is saturated and sonorous, its scoring very different from either Eugene Onegin or Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades), the orchestral sections down in the pit supporting each other and blending in a rich tone quality which carried the impressive cast, soloists and chorus alike on a wave of intoxicating lyricism. There was an inescapable feeling that the Guildhall student singers were involved in something special, and that also comes across with the timely and serendipitous receipt from Select of CPO's Iolanta, recorded from live performances at the ECOV Festival in Ghent, mounted there to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Tchaikovsky's death.

This is a unique annual festival, in which young singers from all over the world attend master classes and enjoy what may be their first opportunities to perform before a wider public. I am fully persuaded by the CD notes writer that Iolanta finds Tchaikovsky 'at the height of his musical maturity and at his greatest perfection'. Although there are no texts provided, the cast lists and track summaries are fully sufficient to keep you on course and, as this is not a dialogue opera like Eugene Onegin, little is lost without the words. Good singing and recorded balance in a sympathetic ambience under Hans Rotman make this a very desirable acquisition, and for many it will prove a happy surprise and a bargain at CPO's "2 for the price of 1".

Was it possibly the Ghent revival which suggested this rare opera to the Opera Department at the Guildhall School?

Peter Grahame Woolf

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