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Tchaikovsky, Iolanta (new concert version production): soloists, Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus, Vassily Sinaisky, Bristol Hippodrome, 9th June 2005 (BK)

The singing in this production is astonishing, but how about this for a plot? Blind Princess Iolanta, betrothed in infancy to the Duke of Burgundy, has never been told of her blindness by command of her father, King René of Provence. On the very same day that a doctor arrives to restore Iolanta's sight, the Duke turns up too with his best friend Vaudémont, who falls for Iolanta like a terrier down a rabbit hole. Insisting that Iolanta will see only if she really wants to, the doctor declares a cure unlikely since Iolanta's ignorance has brought her happiness as she is.


On discovering Iolanta's blindness, the smitten hero spills the beans to her with a rapturous comparison between light and love, which makes instantaneous (though unlikely) sense to his beloved. King René contrives a strategy to encourage motivation even further - he says Vaudémont must die if Iolanta isn't cured (though he has no real intention of carrying out the threat.) The ploy succeeds flawlessly of course; and when Burgundy declares that he loves another actually, if nobody minds too much that is, he is immediately released from his engagement by kindly old King René so that everyone lives happily ever after. The end.


It is easy to see why Tchaikovsky's last opera (a ninety minute one-acter) is performed so rarely. The plot is touching rather than dramatic - everyone in it is really very nice to everyone else, positively all of the time - and the composer said that his brother Modest's libretto (after a story by Hans Anderson) had captured his imagination but not his heart.


But the music is certainly worthwhile. In keeping with his practice in other operas, Tchaikovsky built his score round the crucial love duet between Iolanta and Vaudémont. There are fine set-pieces for most of the ten principal characters and the forces comprise a mixed chorus as well as a substantial orchestra. This is not vintage Tchaikovsky, but it's tuneful and often very moving, steered expertly as it is, by Vassily Sinaisky.


The distinguishing point of the production however, is the truly excellent (and essentially flawless) singing by each and every one of the principals. Nuccia Focile is a moving and rapturous Iolanta and Peter Hoare's ringing Vaudémont shows off his tenor to its absolute best. Three Russian imports, Vladimir Moroz (Robert, Duke of Burgundy,) Pavel Baransky (the Doctor, Ibn-Hakia) and Ilya Bannik (King René) collectively demonstrate the finest aspects of baritone and bass singing and the other principals (including Camilla Roberts, the Welsh entrant in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest next week, as Laura) all deliver to the same exceptional standard. This is as good a cast as I have ever heard at WNO and as splendid as many that I have heard in other major houses.


The company takes the production to Birmingham Hippodrome from June 23rd. For an evening of thrilling singing (augmented as it was last evening, by excerpts from The Nutcracker - with which the opera made a double bill when first produced in 1892) do go to see it. Plot notwithstanding, you'll find it rewarding.



Bill Kenny



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