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TCHAIKOVSKY: Iolanta

CD Button Golovneva; D. Popov, Bondarenko, Sulimsky, A. Vinogradov: Cologne Opera Chorus; Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne, Kitayenko. No libretto. Oehms OC 963 (2)

Recordings Iolanthe Cover 416
Critics Choice Button 1015 

THE GROWING POPULARITY of Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta (1892), is evidenced by—and may expand because of—this fine Cologne-based effort, very skillfully recorded live in two sessions in October 2014. Dmitri Kitayenko leads the Cologne Philharmonic in a clean-toned, alert but never overdriven performance of the lyrical score, which blends Wagnerian touches with echoes of Queen of Spades (1890), created for the same Mariinsky principals. Olesya Golovneva has a strong lirico-spinto voice more than adequate to Iolanta’s B-flats and ensemble-dominating moments; she projects the text with due feeling. What she lacks is a timbre that evokes a fairy-tale princess; Golovneva’s has some shine, but it’s rather take-charge and workaday. 

The news here is tenor Dmytro Popov as Iolanta’s knightly suitor: his is a voice capable of lyrical tenderness, but with top-note squillo that almost buzzes. Such an approach, reminiscent of Zurab Andjaparidze, the Bolshoi’s Gherman and Radamès in the 1960s, does not guarantee a lengthy career, but it’s pretty thrilling. Popov’s ardent Vaudémont is the most exciting on recordings since Vladimir Atlantov’s ringing performance in the mid ’70s. Alexander Vinogradov’s healthy, attractive bass, alertly applied, delivers a first-class René, even without the sepulchral splendor of Kipnis’s or Reizen’s timbres; I wish Vinogradov had assumed this vital role in the Met’s 2014 staging.

Baritone Andrei Bondarenko has a flourishing international career; it’s hard to individualize Robert, but Bondarenko’s vocalism is fully satisfying. Vladislav Sulimsky’s excellent bass-baritone makes the Moorish doctor Ibn-Hakia, whose skill cures Iolanta’s blindness, into a full-blown lead. The small roles are all at least adequately taken, though Justyna Samborska’s very mature-sounding Marta could be steadier. Two fine Opera Köln singers, Dalia Schaechter and John Heuzenroeder, make stronger impressions as Brigitta and Alméric. The opera’s chorus—only decent here—doesn’t rival the Mariinsky’s in either sonority or linguistic acumen; more rehearsal might have helped, but theirs is not a major role in Tchaikovsky’s score. 

The sound is both clean and forward, an achievement in live recording; there is no applause or audience noise. Oehms’s booklet has a synopsis and bios, but newbie listeners will have to find or access a libretto to follow this touching affirmation of faith and love. Some starry-eyed buyers will prefer the fine sets with Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Philips) or Anna Netrebko and Alexey Markov (DG), but Oehms’s new offering is fully viable.  —David Shengold 



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