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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 42: Tchaikovsky, Iolanta Soloists; Chorus & Orchestra of WNO/Vassily Sinaisky, Royal Albert Hall, 15 August, 2005 (CC)



Tchaikovsky's one-acter, Iolanta, is an awkward length. At almost exactly 90 minutes, it is a bit short for a full evening, so what to add? Sinaisky and his Welsh band opted for excerpts from that perennial favourite, The Nutcracker, Op. 71. A total of eight movements made up the half-hour first part of the concert, and if they were indeed 'tacked-on' to the opera that followed (maybe as a last-minute addition), it certainly showed. The performance spoke of woefully inadequate rehearsal (the strings in the Overture were absolutely risible, at best almost together, with the RAH acoustic completely scuppering any attempts at light staccato). The playing was, to put it politely, scrappy. Moments of tenderness did surface (in 'Departure of the guests – Night'), but the 'Trepak' was mightily sluggish and this is the first Sugar-Plum Fairy I've heard of that had lead weights attached to her little booties. The contrast with a concert performance of Act II given by the LSO under Temirkanov in 2003 at the Barbican was, er, marked.


Luckily Sinaisky is a skilled operatic conductor, giving his soloists space and sticking beautifully with them in Iolanta (here receiving its first Proms performance). Sinaisky's pacing was expert. Luckily the orchestral contribution here was not too cringe-worthy, either, although it 'teetered' at times – it was impossible to enjoy the Lullaby properly, for example, preceded as it was by false tuning.


The opera centres around the idea of the blind Iolanta (unaware of her affliction thanks to more than adequate protection from the outside world) acquiring the will to see thanks to the (presumably) handsome Vaudémont. This is, like Nutcracker, the land of the fairy-tale. Luckily the star of this performance was the titular heroine, sung here by the Sicilian, Nuccia Focile. Despite a certain tendency towards harshness at forte, she projects sadness believably. Her performance seemed to get stronger as the evening progressed (and she was drowned by her orchestral surroundings less, too). Her nurse Martha (mezzo Clare Shearer) was certainly matronly of voice. Shearer sang with much confidence (impressing again at the start of No. 2, Scene & Chorus).


The King (bass Ilya Bannik) was believable in his plea to God for his daughter. One identified with his plight, definitely.  Pavel Baransky was a full-toned Ebn-Hakia (the doctor). Only Peter Hoare's Vaudémont sounded a little strained, and his Romance lacked an ardent edge. He can do lyric, though ('You lay before me a vision of heavenly beauty...').


Of the other characters, particularly pleasing was the rounded voice of Brigitta (Elizabeth Donovan), who was nicely matched in duet by Laura (Camilla Roberts). David Soar's bass was large and resonant as Bertrand and Ian Yemm did more than a passable imitation of a Russian tenor as Alméric.


Good to hear Iolanta, of course. Although I may complain at times when I'm down St Martin's Lane about the ENO orchestra, it has to be said there were times I felt very grateful during this particular evening. It is not that WNO has a bad orchestra – rather one that is in evident need of 'tightening up'.



Colin Clarke



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