Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Nutcracker Come Together with Dramatic Effect in Paris

FranceFrance Tchaikovsky – Iolanta/The Nutcracker: Soloists, Orchestra, Chorus (chorus master: Alessandro Di Stefano), Children’s Chorus, and Dancers of the Opéra National de Paris, Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Alain Altinoglu (conductor). Palais Garnier, Paris, 11.3.2016. (MB)

Iolanta/The Nutcracker (c) Agathe Poupeney / OnP

Iolanta (Cast)

King René – Alexander Tsambalyuk
Iolanta – Sonya Yoncheva
Vaudémont – Arnold Rutkowski
Robert – Andrei Jilikovschi
Ibn-Hakia – Vito Priante
Alméric – Roman Shulakov
Bertrand – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Martha – Elena Zaremba
Brigitta – Anna Patalong
Laura – Paola Gardina

The Nutcracker (Cast)

Marie – Marion Barbeau
Vaudémont – Stéphane Bullion
Drosselmeyer – Nicolas Paul
Father – Aurélien Houette
Mother – Alice Renavand
Robert – Takeru Coste
Sister – Caroline Bance


Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Edouard Lock, Arthur Pita (choreography)
Elena Zaitseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Andrey Zelenin (video)

The spirit of Gerard Mortier seems truly renewed at the Paris Opéra under Stéphane Lissner – not restored, for, times having changed, such an attempt would be meaningless, but renewed. Mortier’s intendancy was not perfect, of course; far from it. Any artistic endeavour that takes the risks necessary for success will experience failures too, something grim bureaucrats seem incapable of understanding. Nor, I am sure, will Lissner’s be; again, how could it be? However, even on the basis of the two evenings I have experienced so far, this and the great opening declaration of intent, Moses und Aron, the wilderness years of Nicolas Joël now, thank goodness, seem another, almost forgotten era.

If Romeo Castellucci’s Moses, somewhat belying his previous operatic reputation, proved remarkably faithful, in an almost traditional sense, to the work, then Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Tchaikovsky double-bill fuses fidelity and infidelity in what was arguably more daring fashion. The dialectic between the two comes often to the fore. First, one might point to the historical fidelity of pairing the two works. Iolanta was performed before the 1892 premiere of the Nutcracker. Here Tcherniakov combines the works in ways both expected and unexpected. Indeed, toying with our expectations, confounding them and yet remaining faithful in some senses to them, might, according to taste, be seen as another principal theme of the evening or, perhaps better, as a manifestation of that previously mentioned. It would not, for instance, take a great deal of thought, save for the hosts of opera-goers unaccustomed to or even hostile to thought, to guess that a girl’s or young woman’s sexual awakening might be at the heart of what we see. And, indeed it is. Iolanta is an opera put on for Clara or, rather, as I learned afterwards upon seeing the programme, ‘Marie’. (Nothing I read in the synopsis went against what I had seen and understood; it confirmed the directness and the complexity of the storytelling and analysis, but was not necessary.) Yet it is not Christmas, as we should have expected and as we seem to have been led to expect. The set remains the same initially, the show having taken place chez Marie. But one thing that disappears is the one thing that has surely pointed to a connection, the Christmas Tree (and indeed, the thing we perhaps most strongly associate with a ‘traditional’ Nutcracker). It is, instead, Marie’s birthday, as a cake with candles makes clear. A birthday is, of course, a rite of passage if ever there were one – and, for many of us, a time to recall past horrors, even to experience new ones, at least as much as to ‘enjoy’ the festivities.

Iolanta itself takes place relatively ‘traditionally’. We see no sign of mediæval Provence. (Do self-styled ‘protectors of the work’ really know anything about mediæval Provence?) However, we see what, for much of the history of opera, has been something approaching the norm: an opera set in a period and with assumptions comprehensible to its (initial) audience. What has now become one of the most obvious settings for an opera, the time and place, more or less, of composition was long the default before historicism – always a word and idea to cover a multitude of sins – took root, in the nineteenth century. The phrases that perhaps jar – where is the ‘cave’ in this well-to-do drawing room? – seem intended to jar, although who knows? For the most part, we are settled, perhaps a little too settled, in the comfort of a Victorian-age family Christmas. The fun and games at the start, the blind girl led by her nursemaid, Martha, and friends, Brigitta and Laura, provide an image of a life that might seem perfect, unless one looks. Then one sees and hears a room full of love and, as times goes on, a room full of despair, claustrophobia the handmaiden to the well-meaning yet disastrous conspiracy that has denied Iolanta knowledge of her condition. Knowledge, at least since Eden, is necessary, whether we like it or no; and knowledge, together with romantic, indeed sexual love, will be necessary to rescue her. Such is the task of Vaudémont. He knows not who she is; she knows not who he is. His anguish at her plight is real, even shocking. Even when one ‘knows’ the opera, one feels that his reaction to her blindness might lead him to forsake her. He does not, of course, but Tcherniakov’s typically strong, even overwhelming, Personenregie has one believe one is experiencing the story for the first time, as in some sense one is. One cannot step twice into the same stream twice, however ‘traditional’ that stream might look.

The first act ends at the crucial point of lyrical exaltation, self-exaltation and yet discovery in each other: Iolanta and Vaudémont in love, before her cure. It was with this scene that Tchaikovsky actually began work on the opera, underlining its centrality. In a sense, Tcherniakov underlines its centrality by shifting the framework. (It is not in any case, central in terms of placing within the opera; there is not so very long to go in the opera following this climax.) Its resemblance to an Anton Rubinstein song, ‘Longing’ greatly annoyed Rimsky-Korsakov; allusion, though, is surely the thing, given the subject matter. This, at any rate, is the beginning of the breakthrough; regaining her sight is not inevitable at this stage, but it is this which makes that possible. All then happens ‘as it should’.

The Nutcracker then begins part-way through this second act of the evening. Identities shift, dancers replacing lookalike – or dress-alike – singers, or occasionally not. Marie, who has been physically engaging with the characters has begun her awakening too. The love between her and Iolanta, or the actress/singer playing her, seems real, genuine. So, in sexual form, it soon becomes clear, is that between her and her own Vaudémont, the ginger hair so noticeable before the ‘break’ the strongest clue of identity. But the party has its own course to take, some games nastier than others, some reproductions more faithful than others. Tcherniakov’s use of the LP to usher in some ‘hit’ numbers reminds us necessarily of Walter Benjamin’s celebrated – too celebrated? – essay. The guests go away, but they do not. Just when Marie and her lover might finally be together, they return; who is spoiling the fun of whom?

Then, catastrophe. If sight, the visual beauty of creation, had been won by Vaudémont for Iolanta, we seem now to move backwards. Not to Marie being blind, of course; we do not have that sort of banal symmetry, which would make no sense in this context. But the moment of shock is replicated; and what is more explosive than what must come next? The festivities disappear – just as they would have done in The Nutcracker ‘itself’ – but we find ourselves in a more desolate landscape. Nuclear winter? Figuratively, at least. Snow falls, yes, but there seems little hope, at least until Marie finds her way in this new world. (Remember Brünnhilde’s trauma at loss of her divinity? Remember her fear at the prospect of losing her virginity, let alone the consequences in Götterdämmerung?) Multiple Maries, multiple Vaudémonts, multiple other characters, familiar or not from ‘before’, have their choreographed couplings, some briefer than other, learning (perhaps) as they go on. Monstrous toys play their part, just as they did in ‘the original’; yet all is new, strange. When Marie returns ‘home’ – it has been a dream, a fantasy, or something like that, yet which is which? – she knows she will never be the same again. So do we. Tcherniakov’s whirlwind, literal as well as metaphorical, has changed her and, in many of our cases, changed us.

I have never seen ballet treated so seriously, so convincingly, as a dramatic art form, and again, what could be more faithful to Tchaikovsky, adamant that the genre was anything but a mere divertissement? The land of Lully, Rameau, and Gluck (well, sort of the land of Lully and Gluck!), the land of Béjart, the lands of the Ballet Russes do both genres proud and create something both old and new (but enough of Die Meistersinger until my next review). Choreography, from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Edouard Lock, Arthur Pita does not stand out as a ‘thing in itself’, as so often in opera-ballet collaborations (when we have them at all). Nor does dance itself. The excellent dancers contribute as much as the excellent singers; I shall forego detailed consideration only on account of my lack of expertise. Suffice it to say, I was at least as captivated by Marion Barbeau and Stéphane Bullion, and not only in their pas de deux but throughout, as by Sonya Yoncheva and Arnold Rutkowski. Indeed, given the placing in the dramatic hierarchy of the two works, I was perhaps still more so, without that denoting a judgement upon performances as such. Yoncheva’s Iolanta was heartfelt, and made us, or at least me, feel with her. This was a lovable character, one felt, and a good deal of the drama, so carefully directed by Tcherniakov, flowed from that. The sincerity of Rutkowski was equally palpable. There was no weak singing, even where Tchaikovsky’s score sags in inspiration (as it surely does from time to time). Everyone played his or her part and played it well.

If there were times during the opera when I wondered whether Alain Altinoglu’s conducting, always sure of purpose, were just a little too refined, that was, on reflection, a foolish criticism. What is one supposed to do? Unconvincingly imitate the rough-and-readiness of a (doubtless ill-remembered) old Bolshoi recording? What we saw and heard disabused us of such notions. There was in any case no gainsaying the excellence of the orchestral playing in every section; this is surely one of the world’s greatest opera house orchestras and deserves its praises to be sung as such. Moreover, Altinoglu’s long-term strategy, just like Tcherniakov’s truly came into its own in the second work; Tchaikovsky is, almost of all composers, not one to be too comfortably enjoyed, lest what really matters about his music, what it can say to us now, recede from our view and our hearing. One can perhaps exaggerate the score’s proto-modernism, just as one can exaggerate Stravinsky’s closeness to Tchaikovsky. (Was there ever a slyer composer when it came to influences, to throwing one off the track, perhaps even to throwing himself off the track?) But there are, I think, undeniable neo-Classical elements and tendencies, especially in a particular sort of performance. There were times, actually, when I thought more of Busoni’s ‘Young Classicism’, of his Arlecchino and Turandot, as well as Strauss’s Ariadne – and certainly not just on account of its metatheatricality. That may speak more of my own concerns than those of the staging or musical performance ‘as such’ but again, that speaks of the welcome openness of both. The slipperiness of the work-concept served, visually and aurally, to reinforce our admiration for the works we heard.

Mark Berry

1 thought on “Tchaikovsky’s <i>Iolanta</i> and <i>Nutcracker</i> Come Together with Dramatic Effect in Paris”

  1. How I disagree with most of this review. I went to two performances with a completely open mind and was appalled by Tcherniakov’s ego trip. I should have been warned having seen his Bolshoi ‘Ruslan’. Iolanta was really cut down to size – it took place in a tiny space dumped in the middle of the huge Paris stage. Yoncheva and the orchestra saved the performance. The opera’s dramatic tension was killed by having an unwarranted interval after the great duet making the rest of the opera seem like an anticlimax – no wonder Mark Berry thought the opera ‘sags in inspiration’. The overwhelmingly emotional and touching finale was undermined by the intrusion of characters from Nutcracker and everyone adopting a ‘don’t take all this seriously we’re only play-acting’ attitude. And then did any one hear the opening of Nutcracker’s overture? The opera’s applause had to be stifled by the soprano and we then realised we were well into the overture. The set enlarged into an unattractive larger room peopled by very unattractive personages who then indulged in shouting and whooping completely obliterating all but the loudest music. As to choreography. I saw very little except endless hand-jiving. The sound and meaning of the music was simply ignored. Of the three choreographers who participated only Cherkaoui supplied anything that answered to the word choregraphy and his contributions were balm. There’s no point me going into all my other objections but I must mention the incongruity of the Divertissement – what was the point of it. The stage littered with Disneyish puppets who could barely move while all the dances Russian, Chinese, etc. were ‘danced’ by the same three dancers all identically dressed and performing more or less the same ‘choreography’ for each dance despite Tchaikovsky telling you each one is different. The coda of the Divertissement was actually the coda of the grand pas de deux, in which Marie danced both the male as well as her own solo. The magnificent final waltz was severely truncated and the final tableau – Marie lying alone on the floor of her room – was (to me) meaningless. Matthew Bourne’s unconventional Nutcracker is a masterpiece in comparison. Tchaikovsky’s superb scores were all that kept me sane through these two greatly anticipated but in the event grossly awful evenings.
    In 1993/4 Opera North staged the two works together – the opera with Joan Rogers, Kim Begley and Norman Bailey, the ballet was the first staging of the Bourne version and both conducted by David Lloyd Jones. That was truly unforgettable.


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