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I did not expect to be so deeply moved by this lesser known Tchaikovsky opera. Iolanta may not be performed much these days but it has striking attributes: a powerful, melancholy mood, gripping characters and a concentrated story that consistently holds one's interest. And if it is not quite as consistently inspired melodically as Eugene Onegin or Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky can still be most persuasive here, successfully tugging at the emotional heart meter. Iolanta was Tchaikovsky's last opera, premiering in 1892 on a double bill with the Nutcracker (quite the long program!), and it is not hard to see how the joie de vivre of the ballet would win over more audience than the intimate, somber opera. Yet when performed as convincingly as it is here, Iolanta casts a strong poetic spell that leaves a powerful, lasting impression. At 1 hour and 45 minutes, it is quite substantial, no mere trifle length-wise. It more than holds its own on the opera stage.
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.