So the double bill that concludes this year's superb OHP season features two of the leading names in opera today – soprano Natalya Romaniw and tenor David Butt Philip, both turning in stupendous performances for the company to which they, like so many alumni, are fiercely loyal.
In the title role of this grown-up fairy tale, Romaniw plays a princess blind from birth and unaware of her lack of sight because all around her are sworn to secrecy.
No one must mention the appearance of the gentle world in which she is raised with care. Roses are for fragrance only; eyes are for crying.
King René (Mikhail Svetlov) keeps her blindness a secret from Iolanta (Natalya Romaniw). Photo: Ali Wright
Marooned in the darkness and sensing only that something is missing, Iolanta's struggles for truth are damped down with false words and, occasionally in this production, directed by Olivia Fuchs, medication. When a stranger breaches security, he stumbles on the truth and reveals it to Iolanta. Their love, coupled with the convictions of a mystic physician, change everything.
Singing Iolanta, Romaniw's voice throbs with frustration, only its many colours filling the gap in her life. To hear Romaniw, who has Ukrainian heritage, sing Tchaikovsky is a really thrill. As with her Tatyana at Garsington Opera's own Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, in 2016, she seems born to sing the role. She was a memorable Lisa in OHP's The Queen of Spades that year too. Do hear this latest, overwhelmingly beautiful, performance if you can.
Iolanta's saviour is Count Vaudémont, sung by Butt Philip with the vigour, rigour and mastery that distinguish this exceptional tenor.
Baritone Ashley Riches, last seen at OHP in the title role of Don Giovanni, sings Ibn-Hakia, the medic, with solemnity. Among this huge cast there were standout performances too from Moscow-trained Mikhail Svetlov, as Iolanta's distraught father, and from Laura Woods, leading the all-women team of attendants as Marta.
David Butt Philip as Vaudémont comes to Iolanta's rescue. Photo: Ali Wright
Chorus work in Iolanta falls mainly, and refreshingly, to the women. The princess's nurses sing, as they appear, as one, buttoned up in shades of grey with buns and sensible shoes. But the notion of wearing gags, to keep their secret, palled after the first time, one of a number of small hindrances in this nonetheless striking production.
Design by takis picks up the idea of enlightenment and illumination from the libretto written by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, and in place of the traditional palace garden there are strings, bars and puddles of light. Mark Jonathan is the lighting designer who rises to this challenge with ingenuity.
But crucially, when Vaudémont asks for a red rose and she shows him a white, a simply heartbreaking moment, there is nothing to hand over but lightbulbs. Fortunately, the singing transcends such minor irritations.
Sian Edwards conducts the City of London Sinfonia, alternately raw and refined, with stirring woodwind, brass and harps. Opera Holland Park Chorus with its Russian boots on is a mighty thing, and the final pages prompted tears and shivers of delight in equal measure.
Iolanta's attendants are sworn to secrecy. Photo: Ali Wright
Iolanta is paired with Il Segreto di Susanna, by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, the German-Italian composer who draws effortlessly on the musica traditions of his dual nationalities in his one-act parody. The Susanna of the title is, like Iolanta, house-bound, but by her uxorious husband. Tell-tale signs of deception convince him that she is having an affair. But her secret vice is smoking.
Seen through today's eyes, the hilarity of these crafty fags feels alien, but the hilarious performances by Clare Presland and Richard Burkhard as the warring couple rise above that.
In the stylish set by takis are all the flowers we missed in Iolanta: printed on furnishing fabric, in vases on pedestals, and from top to toe of Susanna's seed-packet gown. That the dominant colour is regal purple will mean most to those old enough to remember seductive packets of Silk Cut.
Richard Burkhard as Count Gil and Clare Presland as Susanna are reconciled in Il Segreto di Susanna. Photo: Ali Wright
There is lots of enjoy in this curtain-raiser, comic actor and singer (silent here) John Savournin adding a flourish as the butler in the know.
John Andrews conducts the City of London Sinfonia – a luxury night out this – two conductors, two directors, two casts – and Wolf-Ferrari's score wittily imitates the tropes of grand opera with heroic statements, powerful love duets and anguished arias.
Like cigarettes, you don't see many productions of Il Segretto di Susanna these days. Tick it off your list and have a laugh. Then settle back for Iolanta and for singing that is quite simply out of this world. If you don't shiver at that last big chorus
'Il Segreto di Susanna' is sung in Italian with English surtitles. 'Iolanta' is sung in Russian with English surtitles. Further performances on 24, 26, 30 July; 1, 3 Aug
|What||Il Segreto di Susanna & Iolanta, Opera Holland Park review|
|Where||Opera Holland Park, Stable Yard, Holland Park, London , W8 6LU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||High Street Kensington (underground)|
22 Jul 19 – 03 Aug 19, six performances
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|