Iolanta. Scherbachenko, Semenchuk; Černoch, Markov, W. White, Ulianov. Perséphone. Blanc; Groves; Young Singers of the JORCAM; Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real, Madrid, Currentzis. Productions: Sellars. Teatro Real 9701, 187 mins., subtitled
Tchaikovsky's final opera had its premiere in 1892, on a double bill with The Nutcracker, but Madrid's ever-ambitious Gerard Mortier hired Peter Sellars and Teodor Currentzis to pair it with Stravinsky's French-language mélodrame from 1934, Perséphone, in an intriguing evening entitled "In Search of the Light." The DVD issue (complete with a twenty-one-minute "insights" feature) is sometimes frustrating but ultimately worthwhile and in places very moving.
Currentzis's sensitive work with the fine Madrid players and chorus suits both pieces. The opera, a touching piece with much affecting Gounod-influenced music, deserves wider recognition. Madrid's version is strongly cast with largely russophone forces, with Ekaterina Scherbachenko (Iolanta), Pavel Cˇernoch (Vaudémont) and Alexei Markov (Robert) as the central trio. James F. Ingalls's lighting and Sellars's often bizarre cinematic framing choices (relentless super-closeups, constant cross-cutting, attention to peculiar details) contrive to make these three attractive young singers often look ghastly, though the Russian soprano's piquant features and the Czech tenor's square-jawed matinée-idol profile get their moments too. Markov is vocally ideal; the others perform very well but as lyric singers are somewhat overtaxed by climaxes written for Tchaikovsky's first Gherman and Lisa. Willard White, in understandable if not quite idiomatic Russian, acts the Mauritanian doctor Ibn-Hakia superbly and sings with generally commendable steadiness. With her excellent, expressive mezzo and pointed diction, Ekaterina Semenchuk makes the princess's nurse, Marta, into a leading figure.
Sellars has never been one to leave well enough alone; it's easy to ignore the extensive floor-rolling he puts his romantic pair through and bouts of his trademark silly coordinated hand jive. But, embracing the current German penchant for remixing scores, he's gone beyond his 1980s habit of trimming things that violate his concept (such as the sublime Ottavio–Anna duettino in Don Giovanni). In his 2011 production of Vivaldi's Griselda in Santa Fe, weheard a totally out-of-character selection from the composer's Stabat Mater. Here, just as Tchaikovsky's finale begins, the action stops dead for almost seven minutes of sublimea cappella choral music from 1880's Liturgy of St. John Chrysosthom. Some ideas should be left on the rehearsal-room floor, especially where little-known works are concerned; the last thing any current coproduction with Russia needs is more gratuitous religiosity. Anyone wishing to hear the score more or less as Tchaikovsky left it can just skip past track twenty. (There is one brief, undamaging cut in the fourth scene.)
Still, this is an intelligent and moving Iolanta. Its main DVD rival, VAI's 1982 Bolshoi performance, preserves mindless Soviet high-kitsch traditionalism, redeemed by the strong performances of Galina Kalinina as Iolanta and Artur Eisen's marvelous René, vastly outranking the underwhelming, range-challenged Dmitry Ulyanov here. Sellars's commentary — typically, a mix of genuine insight and sophistry — rehearses the debunked myth that Tchaikovsky's death was a suicide, and presumes that this ultra-conservative composer disapproved of his society's hierarchy.
Perséphone, an odd mixed-genre bit of '30s modernist neoclassicism to a baffling text by André Gide, is visually more involving; the heroine's journey to light yields engaged compassion. The score, often delicate, almostsustains the somewhat prolix narrative. Four highly expressive Cambodian classical dancers reenact the action; oddly, in Sellars's close-ups the Perséphone looks far older than her mother. Doubling her, the excellent actress Dominique Blanc declaims excitingly. Dressed as a blind prophet (with Iolanta's staff), Paul Groves also delivers the goods, offering strong French style and a wide dynamic palette. This is a pairing worth investigating.
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