This autumn in Moscow continued the celebration of the 175th anniversary of Tchaikovsky, and in October alone three different productions of Iolanta were put on at various venues. But unfortunately they were not all worthy of the composer’s brilliant score.
To start with, a very successful concert performance of the opera was given at the Grand Hall of the Conservatoire as the opening event of the «Opera Art» First International music festival founded by Dinara Alieva, who naturally performed the title role. Then the première of a new production of Iolanta took place on the historic stage of the Bolshoi Theatre. The production of Sergei Zhenovach provoked intense irritation, for it showed his complete incompetence in handling opera and a total lack of understanding of the music. And lastly the Iolanta staged at the Galina Vishnevsaya Opera Centre, which served to reinstate the opera’s importance and diminish the negative reaction to the opera’s deplorable production at the Bolshoi.
Iolanta was first staged at the Vishnevskaya Opera Centre in March 2006 by the St. Petersburg director Aleksandr Petrov in a wonderful production which showed off the Centre’s best young soloists, singers who today perform in Moscow’s leading theatres: Maria Pakhar (Stanislavsky Theatre), Oleg Dolgov, Elchin Azizov (Bolshoi Theatre), Aleksei Tikohmirov (Bolshoi Theatre, «Helikon-Opera»). The production came to the attention of Russia’s theatre world, and was awarded the Golden diploma in the nominations for «The Best Opera production» at the 2005-2006 Moscow Theatre Festival. This Iolanta was also put on at the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg and at the All-Russian festival «Panorama of musical Theatres» in Omsk.
This year it was decided to renew the production, and to dedicate it not only to Tchaikovsky, but to the birth date of Galina Vishnevskaya, the founder and Artistic director of the Opera Centre, and so it received its première on 25th October. Iolanta was one of Vishnevskaya’s favourite operas. She wrote of it: “The music in this opera is divinely inspired and wonderful, displaying both tenderness and suffering, and its subject allows you to penetrate the very depths of the human soul. I sung the title role more than once, but already when I was outside Russia. In the West I performed it with Nikolai Gedda in concert performance. It seems to me that in fact Iolanta does not require any particular production or extraneous effects, what is most needed is talent and good singing”.
Aleksandr Petrov’s production is traditional in the best sense of the word, without any deliberately extraneous effects, but rather the emphasis lies in the development of the characters and of their inter-relationships.
The director’s idea of having the cast wear masks helped to justify the beautiful fairy tale atmosphere of the libretto, and to tell the life story of the blind Iolanta, the daughter of King René, and of how she is cured of her condition, which is as much spiritual as it is physical. Thus the heroine is conducted out of darkness into the light, through the suffering and doubts of first love, to a joyful union with her beloved. This is all as Tchaikovsky had conceived it, for he was attracted principally by the idea of revealing the path leading from darkness to light. It was wonderful that the Opera Centre worked with the young performers on restoring the composer’s original. For here they instil professionalism through using the classics with marvellous results; such a training will be of great service to the singers in the future, as they complete their studies and proceed onto the professional stage.
Today’s Iolanta has remained intrinsically the same as that of the 2006 production, but with one significant change, in that the musical aspect of the opera has been much enhanced. In 2013 Olga Rostropovich, in her capacity as artistic director, created the Opera Centre’s own orchestra, made up of talented young musicians. At her request, Dmitri Yurovsky, one of the renowned Yurovsky «conductors’ dynasty» and the chief conductor of the Flemish Royal Opera and of the National Russian Philharmonic of Moscow took on the re-staging of this production of Iolanta.
Yurovsky revealed the great wealth of Tchaikovsky’s creation, structuring the characters and developing their inter-relationships, while the orchestral score and vocal parts were all richly invested with meaning. The singers’ wonderful diction allowed every word of the music to be heard and understood, the duets and ensembles were performed excellently. The chorus (under its director Lyudmila Eryutkina) sounded excellent, both lyrical in its role as women’s choir, as well as powerful and bright in the finale. The chorus really sang and did not shout, allowing the soloists’ voices to be heard.
Yurovsky conducted two shows; the third was directed by Aleksandr Solovyov, another renowned conductor who works at the Bolshoi Theatre and the Vishnevskaya Opera Centre. And it was Solovyov’s performance that I heard. Under his baton, the orchestra endowed the score of Iolanta with great beauty and diversity, and was a sensitive partner to the soloists and chorus alike. That evening, young singers took on the roles, making their stage debuts in this great Tchaikovsky opera. Of course they required the support of a professional conductor, and indeed they received it.
The best of the singers was Ekaterina Petrova, who performed the title role. Her voice is beautiful and expressive, with an easy, unforced transmission of the sound; her organic understanding of the role revealed a wonderful acting talent. She did not just sing Iolanta, but lived her life, from the first hidden doubts and anxieties to the spiritual insights that bring fulfilment of her happiness. Marat Mukhametzyanov’s interpretation of the Moorish doctor, Ibn-Hakia was full of interest. His supple and flexible baritone invested Ibn-Hakia’s renowned oriental-styled aria with mystery and convinced in its ingratiating exhortations. Throughout the whole opera his unacknowledged guidance helps to heal Iolanta, and in directing the action according to his conceived plan, he ensures the opera’s joyful conclusion.
All the young artists that night were anxious, and they sometimes tried too hard in order to hide their insecurity. But this insecurity will soon disappear, and gradually be replaced by mastery. At any rate the singers in the roles of King René (Vladislav Popov), Robert (Evgeny Shcherbakov), and Vaudémont (Pyotr Sizov) all have the potential to realise their best. The choreographer, Vitaly Vyguzov did excellent work with the singers, who all moved well, and the women knew how to wear their sophisticated costumes. And the silent, but expressive masked figures, (Mikhail Atamanovich, Denis Velev, Aleksei Tolstokorov) were well able to integrate their roles in the action.
Despite the occasional miscalculations and errors, the opera left the audience with a positive feeling of joy, and with the desire to see the work again with other performers.