My family’s association with soprano Ilona Domnitch goes back many years, to the 1980s, when my parents moved to Israel and were active in the activities of Bnai Brith there. One of the projects which that organisation undertook at the time was to help new immigrants from Russia integrate into Israel. One of those recipients of aid was a teenager called Ilona who, as a new immigrant, was unable to pay for the books and equipment required by the music academy high school she attended.
To cut a long story short, when the aid from Bnai Brith came to an end my father, whose sole income was his pension from England, found ways of helping the young woman to further her career. Today, Ilona is an established singer, based in London and performing all over the world.
When we were in London a few weeks ago, at the height of the horrendous heatwave there, Ilona came to our hotel to see us and said that she would be singing the very demanding title role in Puccini’s opera Tosca. It transpired that one of the performances would be at a music festival in the Correze region of France, not far from where we would be spending part of the summer. France is a very large country so ‘not far’ involves driving more than two hours in either direction. But we decided to make the effort and undertake the journey in order to attend the performance, which was to take place in the grounds of the Chateau de Saillant.
On the appointed day we packed a picnic and set off in good time to get to the place, enjoy our food and attend the performance, having been forewarned by Ilona. To our surprise, we found that we were the only people who had brought their own picnic along, everyone else queued up at the very elegant stall providing drinks and finger food. The queue for service was very long, making us feel smug at having brought our own provisions.
The performance took place in a converted barn in the grounds of the Saillant chateau, with a central stage and seating on three sides of it. The production took the limitations of space into account, and the orchestral part was played by the very capable pianist Bryan Evans on a Steinway grand. Each and every one of the singers was outstanding, with powerful voices and a wealth of expression that would do justice to any major operatic performance.
And of course, Ilona was outstanding as Tosca, a real diva, using her silvery voice to maximum effect and displaying impressive acting ability into the bargain. When she sang her principal aria, seeking mercy from the Lord and invoking her piety and her devotion to art, she managed to display such conviction that it brought tears to many eyes in the audience (including mine).
The reaction of the audience, which included local resident and former President of France, Francois Hollande, at the conclusion of the evening was rapturous. The cast was called back to take a bow at least ten times, the audience stood and clapped, shouting‘ vo!’ for many minutes.
When we left the auditorium and started to leave the grounds, there was Ilona (still wearing her Tosca costume) coming towards us, eager to kiss and hug us as we congratulated her and shared our delight at having been able to hear and see her sing so well. And to crown it all, she made a point of saying that having us there in the audience that night was almost like having Manfred (my late father), to whom she owed so much, there.
What more could anyone ask? It was an unbeatable experience, and the memory of it will continue to delight us for a long time.