If you want to produce a one-act opera, you need to have a good partner for it in order to make a full evening’s entertainment. Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci have been partners for so long that a divorce may be messy and expensive (for the opera house). Many other one-acters are difficult to mate or date and are left on the shelf. This conundrum applies to Tchaikovsky’s 1892 splendid Iolanta which the Metropolitan Opera did not touch until 2015. Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle proved to be a good partner and the Met took the plunge. One shudders to think what Bluebeard would have done with the blind princess but that me be mixing fact with opera and showing too much imagination.
In the same year, the Aix-en-Provence Festival partnered Iolanta with Stravinsky’s Persephone, directed by the inimitable Peter Sellars to marvelous effect. A year later the Paris Opera found Iolanta’s intended partner, The Nutcracker ballet which Tchaikovsky had betrothed to her from the time of composition and premiered both works on the same night. The brilliant Dmitri Tcherniakov directed and designed the sets for both works for the Paris Opera’s 2016 production. The pandemic has helped by making both works streamed to us for a modest fee.
Iolanta is based on a Danish play by Henrik Hertz and is set in the mountains of 15th century Provence, France. The heroine is a blind princess who lives in a secluded garden with lush vegetation and flowers that is described by visitors as paradise. She does not know that she is blind and is very happy in her sightless world. Her father, King René (Alexander Tsymbalyuk) keeps her isolated from the world but brings Dr. Ibn Hakia (Vito Priante) to cure her blindness.
Robert, Duke of Burgundy (Andrei Jilihovschi) and the Burgundian knight Vaudémont: (Arnold Rutkowski) lose their way and drop in on Iolanta. Robert was betrothed to her in childhood and has not seen her since and does not know that she is blind. In any event, he is in love with someone else. Vaudémont falls in love with Iolanta and then realizes that she is blind but does not waiver in his passion.
Iolanta has some splendid singing and she must convince us of her innocence and blindness. Soprano Sonya Yoncheva gives an outstanding performance. She has a satin voice and an ability to project Iolanta’s innocence and slow discovery of the meaning of light. Tenor Arnold Rutkowski is the heroic and passionate Vaudémont who falls in love with her and with the idea of her beauty and innocence at first sight. He has a supple and clarion voice that is a delight to the ear.
Baritone Andrei Jilihovschi is a more realistic person when it comes to his friend’s over-the-top romanticism but he is equally passionate when he sings of his love for a woman named Mathilde. He sings at full throttle with his marvelous voice.
Tcherniakov has a knack for reimagining operas and he does the same with both Iolanta and The Nutcracker. His set for Iolanta is a brightly-furnished sitting room with large windows that we cannot see through. Iolanta is supposed to be in the mountains and her abode is described as Eden or paradise but we see nothing to merit such description. What the characters say and what we actually see are unrelated.
The costumes by Elena Zaytseva are almost modern. The men wear double-breasted suits and overcoats with fur collars. We are not looking for anything related to 15th century southern France but the hats and the coats make the characters look Russian. Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary production even if one disagrees with the set and the costumes.
The Nutcracker as I said opened on the same night as Iolanta in 1892 but the marriage did not last. They have almost never been paired since then. Tcherniakov had to take serious steps to find common grounds of cohabitation for the couple. He had to change the ballet’s character dramatically to give the two works a similar feel. He has rewritten the ballet while using Tchaikovsky’s music. If you have recollections of a Christmas Tree, a Sugar Plum Fairy, a Nutcracker Prince, a beautiful Waltz of the Snowflakes or the Flowers you can just forget them. Tcherniakov morphs the characters of Iolanta into The Nutcracker and the ballet becomes a journey of discovery and awakening that may not always be clear but that never ceases to be fascinating.
Tcherniakov uses three choreographers, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Edouard Lock and Arthur Pita and if they share any ideas about the dancing, it is impossible to say. There are gorgeous pas de deux but there is also a scene where the dancers look like high school students dancing whatever high school students dance to and elderly couples shuffling their feet pretending to be waltzing. The Waltz of the Snowflakes becomes a dark and terrifying dance in a blizzard that is utterly fascinating.
Marion Barbeau, the current Principal Dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet is Marie, Stéphane Bullion is Vaudémont and Takeru Coste is Robert. They as well as other characters, have stepped into the ballet directly from the opera and look the same in both pieces. You will find out the truth at the end of the performance.
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris are conducted by Alain Altinoglu in an unforgettable performance.
Iolanta and The Nutcracker by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky are being transmitted by the Opera national de Paris and may be watched for 30 days upon payment of a fee of $US7.99. For more information go to: https://chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/ or https://www.operadeparis.fr/