Irina Churilova’s magnificent characterisation enlightens Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at the Mariinsky

Russian FederationRussian Federation Tchaikovsky, Iolanta: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre / Zaurbek Gugkaev (conductor). Mariinsky II, St Petersburg, 16.1.2022. (GT)

Mariinsky Theatre’s Iolanta

Director- Mariusz Treliński
Production designer – Boris Kudlička
Costume designer – Magdalena Musiał
Lighting designer – Marc Heinz
Cinematographer – Wojciech Puś
Animators – Michał Jankowski and Tomasz Popakul
Dramaturg – Piotr Gruszczyński

René – Mikhail Petrenko
Iolanta – Irina Churilova
Robert – Pavel Yankovsky
Vaudémont – Migram Agadzhanyan
Ibn-Hakia – Roman Burdenko
Almeric – Andrey Zorin
Bertrand – Yuri Vorobyov
Marta – Nina Yevstafiyeva
Brigitta – Kira Loginova
Laura – Yekaterina Sergeyevna

Tchaikovsky’s final stage work embraces some of his finest writing yet remains rather neglected outside Russia. Based on his brother Modest’s libretto, the origins of the composer’s interest lies in his reading the 1845 melodrama by Henrik Hertz – Kong Renés Datter (The Daughter of King René). The Danish playwright based his romanticised story on the life of the Duchess of Lorraine Yolande (1428-1483) – the daughter of King René of Anjou who shared his titles with that of the King of Naples and Count of Provence. Yolande married Ferri de Vaudemont (whose sister Marguerite d’Anjou wed the English King Henry VI). Yolande was alleged to have succeeded her father as the Tenth Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. Hertz’s play was popular and translated into several languages, and it was the adaptation by Vladimir Zotov that was chosen by Tchaikovsky for his last opera. When Tchaikovsky read the play in 1883, he was intrigued most of all by the unconventional plot together with the intimacy of Iolanta’s plight of blindness and gaining her sight through love. The musical dramaturgy is built as a movement from darkness to light: from the troubled delusion of the introduction to the hymn of light and the eulogistic prayer in the finale.

Ultimately it was seeing the play in 1888 at the Maly Theatre in Moscow which finally gave the composer the inspiration for writing this opera. Vsevolozhsky the director of the Mariinsky engaged him to write a double-bill of a ballet and the opera. The ballet was his Nutcracker, and he wrote both works concurrently in 1891. Alexander III was well pleased with the new opera at the premiere on 18 December 1892 – although the press disliked it – yet strangely Iolanta proved more popular than the Nutcracker at the time. Mahler conducted the European premiere in Hamburg in 1893 as he did in Vienna in 1900, yet despite such eminent backing the opera has never really matched the successes of Eugene Onegin or The Queen of Spades. This is most likely because of it only being in one act, and for a libretto attempting to create an ideal world which is somewhat artificial in its setting. Interestingly, the story of Yolande was used for an early silent film in 1913, and again in 1990 as a German-language film Der Licht das Liebe. There is no kinship with the popular Savoy opera by Arthur Sullivan. Iolanta has been staged widely in Europe and in the US throughout the twentieth century and this includes a 2012 production by Peter Sellars for the Teatro Real Madrid and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. This current co-production between the Mariinsky Theatre and the Festival Theatre Baden-Baden was premiered at the Mariinsky on 17 April 2009.

In Hertz’s romanticized play, Iolanta is a beautiful sixteen-year-old princess who lives in a secluded garden paradise. Iolanta, King René’s daughter, is blind. René has issued a decree by which it is forbidden for anyone to speak of sight or light in her presence. Cared for by her friends, Iolanta sings a beautiful arioso, ‘Why, until now have I not shed a tear?’ There follows a wonderful chorus of Iolanta and her friends, ‘They are as soft as velvet’. The king never abandons hope of his daughter being cured, though he is worried at the idea that in order for this to happen Iolanta must learn that she is blind and that she must desire to be able to see and he sings a wonderful arioso, ‘Oh God, look on me with pity’. The knights Gottfried of Vaudémont and his friend Robert arrive at Iolanta’s peaceful refuge. Robert cares little for Iolanta, to whom he has been affianced since childhood, ‘No, the charming attentions of a spirited beauty tempt me not’ while Vaudémont falls completely in love with the girl. Left alone with Iolanta, Vaudémont asks for a red rose by which to remember her. The girl offers him a white rose and then Vaudémont guesses that she is blind and tells her of the beauty of the world she is missing due to her blindness, ‘It was I who woke you from your slumber’. Vaudémont’s words, however, do not rouse any desire in Iolanta to be able to see. In despair, King René threatens Vaudémont with death should his daughter not be cured. Fear for the life of the man who has now become close to her awakens in Iolanta the willingness to agree to an operation that will restore her sight. In the meantime Robert admits to the king that he loves someone else and cannot marry his daughter. On discovering that Iolanta can now see, the king forgives Robert and releases him from his sacred oath, agreeing to permit his daughter to marry Vaudémont. At the wedding, all of the guests sing a thankful hymn in praise of God.

Irina Churilova (Iolanta)

The current production at the Mariinsky Theatre is by Polish stage director Mariusz Treliński and set designer Boris Kudlička. Their conception is of a magical garden, ‘like paradise’ where Iolanta lives – in a hospital chamber, with servants and friends – closeted with the cold and impersonal staff who keep their patient at a distance: the knights of Burgundy, who have advanced into this forbidden spot, ‘wandering in the Vosges Mountains’, appear as businessmen-romantics from some alpine resort. Treliński and Kudlička present the opening introduction as a nightmare, revealing the dreams of the frightened Iolanta’s subconscious. We see deer being hunted in the forest and Iolanta hammering the doors of her room in desperation. The star of the evening was the outstanding characterisation by Irina Churilova as Iolanta, in voice and acting, while the René of Mikhail Petrenko was masterly in vocal command and well matched by the Vaudémont of Migram Agadzhanyan whose beautifully vibrant tenor enlightened the evening while the Robert of Pavel Yankovsky was magnificent. Special mention must be made of the young conductor Zaurbek Gugkaev who handled the difficult orchestral score with great skill and revealed the makings of a future star conductor. The secondary roles were all finely enacted especially that of Iolanta’s friends who were presented in this production as nurses. With the stage centered on Iolanta’s bedroom encircled by the forest, the narrative concentrates on her dilemma and the fairytale plot of winning her sight again through love. This successfully fulfills Tchaikovsky’s valedictory stage work and showing again – in one of his operas – the role of women in society. Since this opera contains several wonderful ariosos and duets which often are performed in recitals of Russian opera, it confirms Iolanta as one of Tchaikovsky’s finest stage works.

Gregor Tassie

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