Iolanta / Persephone [Blu-ray] [Import]
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Iolanta : Ekaterina Scherbachenko (Iolanta) - Alexej Markov (Robert) - Pavel Cernoch (Vaudémont) - Dmitry Ulianov (Le Roi René)... - Perséphone : Dominique Blanc (Perséphone) - Paul Groves (Eumolpe) - Ch. & Orch. de Teatro Real - Teodor Currentzis, dir.
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Sellars uses the same set for Stravinsky's Perséphone to great effect with changing backdrops and lighting giving the simple frame structures a completely different feel. Whilst I felt Stravinsky's piece was less compelling musically it was beautifully performed and had the additional interest of the Cambodian dancers from Amrita Performing Arts who shadowed the story in their unique form of ballet.
The one-act work is centered around the blind Iolanta, daughter of King Rene in 15th century Provence, who doesn't know she differs from anyone else. The story is strong and dark, and I won't spoil the ending, but it is terribly moving. Tchaikovsky rises to the occasion with much music that is eloquent. It's hard to know where to start with the successes of this 2012 Madrid production. The singing is universally fine, with a largely youthful Russian cast offering clear and pure vocalism, with especially strong enunciation. Iolanta is eloquently portrayed by a silver-voiced Ekaterina Scherbachenko, evoking a radiant presence. Veteran Willard White not only looks the part of the Moorish physician Ibn Hakia, but also sings powerfully and evocatively, although not as clearly as the Russian cast. The most beautiful and impressive voice belongs to baritone Alexej Markov, who has a burnished, beautifully-produced tone and strong dramatic ideas as Robert, Iolanta's promised suitor. Markov reminds me of the young Sergei Leiferkus; I'd love to hear him as Onegin, a specialty of Leiferkus years ago.
Masterfully supporting and greatly enriching this moving work is the superb conducting of Teodor Currentzis, also dramatically insightful in Verdi's Macbeth on video. He totally has the measure of Iolanta, offering strong dramatic contrasts and consistently realizing the emotional undercurrents of the work. Currentzis elicits first-rate, idiomatic playing from the Madrid players.
Both stage and video direction are by long-time John Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, who puts a distinctive mark on the proceedings. He stresses close-up shots of the protagonists, which in such a personal and moving piece fits the action well. The costumes are modern and plain. His staging is modest - open door frames with symbolic objects (rocks?) on their tops - and it works convincingly. People enter and leave a scene but their emotional presence is never far behind. Most striking is Sellars' daring, dynamic lighting; the contrast is extreme and powerful. It seems often a very bright hand-held light is used quite close to the characters, which might have been disconcerting in the theater, but is largely unobtrusive or unseen on screen. The contrasts of strong and varied levels of light and ample use of shade are most moving - ironic in a story focused on a blind person.
Several elements stand out musically and dramatically; a distinctive on-stage string quartet toward the beginning, the touching love duet between the two leads, the strongly etched duet between Markov and his Burgundian couterpart Vaudemont (movingly sung by Pavel Cernoch) and the beautiful final hymn. The end scene is visually highly striking: the entire cast is in black, except for Iolanta awash in royal blue, standing out most dramatically from the others. A notable end to a notable opera. It brings numerous gulps to the throat.
Stravinsky's Persephone, at just under an hour, fills out the disc. Unusually, it has the same stark set as Iolanta, which seems to work well in this intimate Greek legend. The work features a striking Dominque Blanc in the spoken role of Persephone, a vocally off and on Paul Groves as the commentator Eumolpe (the only vocalist), a small, beautiful Cambodian dance troupe (with particularly eloquent hand movements) and a chorus. It is the soft side of Stravinsky, a complement to the Iolanta, and is a mildly agreeable pastiche, nothing more.
Persophone is a little bit more difficult. The libretto by Andre Gide is quite dense and needs full attention. I am sure something is missed in the translation to English for those who don't understand French. I was not convinced by the minimalistic approach. I felt something was missing, in particular because it is difficult to visualize the transition between the abduction, Hell and then back to Earth. The Cambodian dancers are a nice addition although at some points it gets a little bit confusing. The general theme is too big for an intimate production in my opinion. Sellars linked both operas as the search for light, which is interesting and meaningful. The pamphlet enclosed in the Blu-Ray disc lacks more details on the operas themselves.
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