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Enlightened

Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s opera about the quest for sight — both literal and spiritual — comes to the Met this month for the first time. DAVID SHENGOLD shares his personal connection to the work.

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Anna Netrebko in the title role of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta at the Mariinsky in 2013
© N. Razina 2015     
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Tchaikovsky, with Nikolai Figner and Medea Mei, the stars of the first Iolanta
© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2015

Sometimes one just stumbles into paradise. This happens to both tenor characters — the King’s armor-bearer, Alméric, and Vaudémont, the eventual romantic hero — in Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta, only now getting its first Metropolitan Opera production. Each exclaims upon the unexpected “paradise,” seeing the flower-laden world behind high, forbidding walls. 

It can happen to operagoers, too. In April 1980, my American student group —w pale and shell-shocked from months of coping with Leningrad frosts and Cold War pressures (Afghanistan, Olympics) — suddenly found ourselves amid Armenia’s lush, Mediterranean beauty; seeing things like fresh fruit and water fountains seemed miraculous. I’d been enjoying $1 front-row Kirov seats, hearing my first Lucia and Manon Lescaut in Russian. On that warm and breezy night in Yerevan, I tracked down the local Opera, a circular Stalinist building evoking the Brueghel-influenced city in Metropolis. Posters announced a title I recognized only as being by Tchaikovsky — Iolanta. Knowing nothing more, I bought a ticket, vaguely expecting something stuffy and comic, along the lines of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.

To the contrary, Iolanta is a lushly Romantic fairy-tale score, comedy-free but deeply moving and cathartic, about having the chance to grasp one’s limitations and transcend them through faith in another person. I gleaned the basics from a brief Russian synopsis — cloistered young princess, unaware of her blindness; two wandering noblemen, one her arranged fiancé; a guilt-ridden royal father; a Mauretanian doctor pushing a faith-based cure. Both light and love attained. 

The subtleties and specifics I learned only later, but I had enough to go on; the enthusiastic performance imparted the rest. Granted, it took time to recognize the not small, not young figure in white onstage as the adolescent Iolanta, but she sang commandingly. When the wandering Duke Robert and his friend Vaudémont blundered into her secret garden as she slept, I got nervous. Young and conventionally dashing, they might have been this Iolanta’s grandsons. Although they carried themselves confidently, they pushed incessantly until legato and accurate pitch vanished. Meanwhile, the aging soprano — who had stayed true to her training and the music — sang ever better, rising with thrilling security and conviction to the high B-flats sprinkled throughout the stirring music that limns Iolanta’s path to sight and liberation. She really believed, and made us believe, that she was a beautiful young princess. Never before had I seen sheer artistic determination triumph over such evident handicaps. The demonstration dovetailed with the opera’s message, and I dissolved in tears — as I have at every Iolanta performance I have attended since.

I next encountered Iolanta almost exactly two years later, at Carnegie Hall. Galina Vishnevskaya — the most famous Soviet diva, pushed into exile with her husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, for their principles — starred in a concert version of the work, with Rostropovich conducting the National Symphony. Though we in the audience knew her voice had lost freshness, we had to be there. Like the producers of boulevard comedies in which the septuagenarian Claudette Colbert played frisky matrons, the Rostropoviches had assembled a distinctly mature supporting cast. However, Nicolai Gedda — pushing fifty-seven — sounded terrific in Vaudémont’s dazzling music. Vishnevskaya, a tiny woman with towering presence, started raucously, but soon she had us deeply involved. She rose to Gedda’s challenge in the impassioned, excited love duet that anchors Iolanta’s midpoint. If the sounds Vishnevskaya made in the sweeping finale were neither radiant nor youthful, her emotional commitment made us think they were. 

Iolanta stems from Henrik Hertz’s once-celebrated 1845 Danish play King René’s Daughter. As with Queen of Spades in 1890, Piotr Tchaikovsky worked from a libretto by his playwright brother Modest — also gay, and Piotr’s confidant. The married creators of Iolanta’s romantic leads — Nikolai Figner and Medea Mei — deserve mention; the Tchaikovsky brothers knew their gifts well, since Figner and Mei had launched Queen of Spades, as Gherman and Lisa, at its 1890 Mariinsky world premiere. The handsome tenor won great success in both Italy and Russia. The soprano had already sung Tatiana in Petersburg; Tchaikovsky penned Queen of Spades at top speed in her native Florence. Mei and Figner divorced in 1904, with one singer having declined in quality: Figner’s records, unlike Mei’s, are a disappointment. Also connecting Tchaikovsky’s last two operas was the presence of popular baritone Leonid Yakovlev, who created both Yeletsky (Queen of Spades) and Robert (Iolanta). In both cases, the high-born fiancé of the soprano heroine, seemingly her predestined ideal mate, loses her to the tenor of lesser prospects.

Musical and plot tropes link Iolanta with Tchaikovsky’s more familiar operas. Listeners acquainted with Queen of Spades will notice touches in Iolanta virtually quoting it — ascending brass figures, overheated strings. A mysterious, disturbed theme in Iolanta’s brief orchestral introduction modestly echoes the spectacular emotional lightning in the Queen of Spades overture. The introduction yields to sweet, archaized chamber music, played for Iolanta and her friends. It cannot dispel her sense that something is very wrong. Tchaikovsky’s heroines often suffer during diegetic music — musical episodes meant to be understood as sung passages in plot terms. Iolanta’s sadness in the face of this music mirrors Tatiana listening cheerlessly to her birthday serenade and Lisa enduring Pauline’s somber song at her engagement celebration.

Among Tchaikovsky’s favorite operas was Carmen; traces of Bizet, such as the Queen of Spades children’s chorus, and trails of Gounod — Onegin’s shepherd pipes, borrowed from Mireille — decorate many Tchaikovsky works. Unlike most Russian artists of his generation, he adored the French ancien régime, and that left its mark on Iolanta as well as his other French-set opera, 1881’s Meyerbeerian Maid of Orleans. Onegin and Queen of Spades also have distinct French connections. Onegin offers the elderly tutor Triquet, with his poor Russian and outdated couplets; Queen of Spades gives us the old Countess living entirely in a Francophone milieu. Her fearful secret, her hatred of the present, her nostalgia for the art and artists of the past all stem directly from the Paris of her youth, during Louis XV’s reign.

Sleeping Beauty derives from Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, with its rescuing prince and benevolent court; the ballet resonates very strongly with Iolanta. Tchaikovsky — far from being the “social outcast” that both homophobic critics and some gay theorists have wanted him to be — was comfortable dealing with the Romanov court. (Tsar Alexander III attended his Mariinsky dress rehearsals.) He was a loyal, conservative Imperial subject; benevolent, stern monarchs appealed to him, as Iolanta’s layered portrayal of “Good King René” suggests. Though every major character has an audition-quality aria, only René has a real, full-out soliloquy.

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Anna Netrebko as Iolanta
© Andrea Kremper 2015

When I returned to Leningrad/Petersburg in the 1990s, Iolanta played at the secondary Maly — now “Mikhaylovsky” — Opera in a pretty, flimsily floral staging, usually fielding visually credible Iolantas. By then, Russia was more liberated — and so was I: what had been sublimated in the arts and good causes now found me openly and politically gay. So beyond the work’s beautiful music — and having seen two divas reaffirm the power of belief that is at its core — I could recognize the seductive fantasy the Tchaikovsky brothers crafted as their final joint stage testament. Iolanta works on one level as metaphor for the onset of puberty and the transformative potential of adult sexuality. Something unspoken in adolescence hurts: but the right knight will come along — break some rules, explain a few things — and clarify the inner life one never quite understood. Vaudémont’s request for a red rose, answered by Iolanta with white roses, alerts him to her blindness, which he then explains to her. It’s an act that is at once a violation and the birth of her (literal) enlightenment. Iolanta, like Tatiana and Lisa, feels uneasy despite relatively comfortable circumstances, including friends and loyal peasant retainers. Each Tchaikovsky heroine trusts that a man who appears unexpectedly (Onegin, Gherman, Vaudémont) will be her salvation — with wildly different but equally moving results. For Iolanta, enlightenment through love makes a seeming paradise a real one.

Why has this tuneful, moving opera been so little heard outside Russia? Like Hänsel und Gretel and Rusalka, Iolanta belongs to the genre of post-Wagnerian fairy-tale operas that bloomed in all operatic cultures from shortly before the turn of the last century to the outbreak of World War I. Outside their native lands, few fairy-tale works survived the horrors of that conflict as viable repertory. Only Hänsel continued to flourish internationally. Audiences seemed to prefer greater historicity — Egyptians, Romans, Gauls — or the more realistic plots ushered in by the verismo era. Another reason for Iolanta’s obscurity in the West has surely been its length. At roughly ninety minutes of music, the opera clocks in too long for a one-act and too short for a full evening. At the premiere, it evidently made an odd pairing with The Nutcracker. (Tchai­kov­sky and most of the first critics thought the opera superior to the ballet, but audiences and history have disagreed.) Yet appending the more appropriate Sleeping Beauty would make performances endless.

The opera’s international fortunes have risen of late. In the U.S. this season, the Met’s Iolanta will be bookended by Curtis Institute and Dallas mountings. Since 2012, Iolanta has graced stages in Amsterdam, Cologne, Madrid, Metz, Munich, Nancy, Valencia, Vienna and Warsaw. Metz and Nancy lie in the Meuse Valley, where the ruined castle of the ancient Counts of Vaudémont still stands. The title role makes a great vehicle. Netrebko has cannily used Iolanta to launch her reentry into Russian repertory, as a stepping-stone to Vienna and Met triumphs as Tatiana — and she’s toured widely as Iolanta and sings it for the first time at the Met this month.

My latest return to Petersburg — as OPERA NEWS’s correspondent — came in May 2013. Valery Gergiev had taken Iolanta back where it started. First seen on the Mariinsky stage in 2009, Mariusz Trelin´ski’s visually striking film-noir-inspired production was the first staged opera in the company’s magnificent new theater. Less fairy tale and more Freud prevailed scenically and in the characters’ interactions, but the finale’s sense of liberation was none the weaker for that. 

Iolanta will be my last Mariinsky “home game” for a while. One month later, Vladimir Putin — who had, at the gala the night before Iolanta, received the kind of “stormy applause” that was de rigueur in the Soviet period — announced new laws basically forbidding public mention of homosexuality. A new Russian film is in the works, portraying Tchaikovsky as a committed skirt-chaser. Doubtless, insight and enlightenment will again penetrate the darkness; for now, I’ll elect to view the riches of Russian culture — including the magical Iolanta — from outside the walls. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD has contributed to the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Wexford Festival programs. He has taught opera, literature and cultural history at several colleges. 

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