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Iolanta & The Nutcracker 

PARIS
Opéra National de Paris
3/14/16

In REview Paris Nutcraker hdl 416
Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of The Nutcracker, part of a double bill with Iolanta at the Palais Garnier
© Agathe Poupeney / PhotoScene
In Review Paris Iolante lg 416
Paola Gardina, Sonya Yoncheva as Iolanta, Anna Patalong and Elena Zaremba as Martha
© Agathe Poupeney / PhotoScene

IT IS A LITTLE KNOWN FACT that Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta and his ballet The Nutcracker were commissioned as a double bill for the Russian imperial theaters in 1892, in order to rival the grand evenings at the Paris Opéra. Stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov, who has as an ambition to produce the totality of the Russian opera repertoire, saw the possibility of linking the two works with his own dramaturgy in a new production for the Paris Opéra at the Palais Garnier, conducted by Alain Altinoglu (seen March 14).

Tcherniakov rightly identified that the worlds of ballet and opera often live side by side without real contact. For this reason he placed the first interval of a long evening before the final scene of Iolanta, in order to forge a single drama with The Nutcracker. To this end the ballet was no longer a spun-sugar fairy tale, but an exploration of the inner life of Marie—here Iolanta’s double—for whom the performance of the opera had been given as a birthday present. Tcherniakov sought, in his own words, to explore “pain, loss, fulfillment, scatter-brained happiness, fragility, heartbreak, suffocation and compassion”— emotions that can be heard in the music. Tcherniakov collaborated with three contemporary choreographers—Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who did the waltz of the flowers and the final pas de deux; Édouard Lock, who was in charge of most of the divertissements; and Arthur Pita, who choreographed the birthday party. To Pita went the difficult task of making the transition from the operatic presentation into the ballet. The opera was a Chekhovian drama set behind closed doors, with the chorus placed in the pit, creating a stifling atmosphere of bourgeois gentility. This tight interior drew back to open up the stage to include the invited guests surrounding Marie. The characters of the opera meshed into the dancers of The Nutcracker to begin Marie’s psychological search for her lover, Vaudémont. Tcherniakov’s febrile imagination included the destruction of the home and its bourgeois stability—an explosion of frightening naturalism. This was followed by Marie’s journey to find her lover through a devastated landscape with menacing snowscapes, peopled by the unexpected. A children’s toyland gave way to waltzing couples, who magically aged by decades as the dance progressed before a giant meteor destroyed everything on earth. Marie wakes up to discover that—in a well tried theatrical device—everything had been a dream, but thanks to the director’s vision, we were wiser about her inner life. 

Lock’s frenetic choreography had a nervous itchy quality, but an exciting physicality, while Cherkaoui offered a more romantic approach, beautifully danced by Marion Barbeau as the Iolanta/Marie character and Stéphane Bullion as Vaudémont, with an elegant contribution from Alice Renavand as Marie’s mother/Martha. It was a fascinating evening of theater for those who—like the composer himself—find the original story of the ballet cloying, but it was an unhappy performance for those in search of classic choreography of a well-loved favorite.

The opera was remarkably sung and acted, with just the right degree of amateur, dramatic clumsiness to suggest that this was a home performance. The cast was headed by Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who sang Iolanta superbly—despite an announcement that she was suffering from an indisposition. Her voice has a silvery power, a distinctly Russian fiber and a searing dramatic commitment; Yoncheva managed to convey Iolanta’s unknowing blindness without fidgety groping, and recovered her sight with new found physical freedom.

Opposite her was tenor Arnold Rutkowski, whose potent upper register paid dividends in the high tessitura of Vaudémont. Alexander Tsymbalyuk was impressive as Iolanta’s father, King René with his cavernous bass and towering presence. Elena Zaremba brought mezzo authority to Martha, with firmly sung support from baritones Vito Priante as the Moorish doctor and Andrei Jilihovschi as a dashing Robert. 

Altinoglu conducted a fiery and muscular version of both opera and ballet, perhaps more sensitive to his singers than to the dancers, while dealing with an orchestra on routine form.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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