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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Iolanta (1892) - opera in eight scenes, an introduction and finale [92.24]
Olga Myktenko (sop) - Iolanta
Benno Schollum (bass) - King René of Provence
Andrey Grigoryev (bar) - Robert
Piotr Beczala (ten) - Count Vaudémont
Vladimir Krassov (bar) - Ibn-Hakia
Roman Muravitsky - Alméric
Nikolai Didenko - Bertrand
Nina Romanova - Martha
Bella Kabanova - Brigitte
Moscow Chamber Choir/Vladimir Minin
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
Alla Demidova reads from Pushkin's Eugene Onegin interspersed with scenes from Tchaikovsky's opera (sung by Maria Gavrilova (sop), Irina Chistiakova (mezzo), Sergej Murzayev (bar), Albert Shagidullin (bar), Vitaly Tarashchenko (ten)). [48.00]
rec. live, 13 March 2002, Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatory (Iolanta); live, 24 May 1999, Pushkin Concert, 24 May 1999, Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory (readings).
RELIEF CR991074 [68.38+70.36]


Rather like his contemporary Dvořák, Tchaikovsky strove all his life to write an outstandingly successful opera. The closest he came to this was Eugene Onegin while Dvorak had ultimately to be satisfied with Rusalka. Iolanta (a.k.a. Iolanthe - which has us sailing close to the wind with G&S) was Tchaikovsky’s last opera. It was written between July and December 1891.

The libretto is by Modest Tchaikovsky and is based on Vladimir Zotov's translation of Henrik Hertz's play ‘King René’s Daughter’ (1864). It was premiered on 18 December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg just a year before the composer's death. It had to wait until 1968 before its UK premiere. Its US premiere took place in 1933. Iolanta was part of a double bill commission to be performed on a single evening. The other work was The Nutcracker. It is interesting that Relief and Fedoseyev are planning The Nutcracker for their next release along with more Mahler.

The plot: Iolanta is the blind daughter of René, King of Provence. He has kept her blindness from her. Ibn-Hakir, a great Moorish physician, examines Iolanta and reports to the King that she will only gain her sight if she longs to have it. She must be told about her blindness. Vaudémont and Robert (Iolanthe's betrothed who has affections elsewhere) arrive at the castle. Vaudémont falls for Iolanthe. He unwittingly reveals to her that sight and light exist. King René threatens death to Vaudémont if Iolanta cannot regain her sight after a further examination by Ibn-Hakir. When Iolanta returns cured Vaudémont is saved. Iolanta is lost in wonder at the visual world she now discovers for the first time. The ensemble and the choir shake the rafters with the final paean to light - the source of life and truth.

Is it any good as an opera? Yes, certainly. This is fully mature Tchaikovsky as the many cross-references to Manfred and the last three symphonies attest. It plays for about ninety minutes and may have formed the pattern for Rachmaninov’s one-acters (Aleko, The Miserly Knight and pre-eminently Francesca Da Rimini - in fact the latter was to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky as indeed is Iolanta) soon to be issued in a DG Trio box in Järvi’s excellent recordings.

Fedoseyev’s team is well nigh flawless although I did sometimes wonder if there should have been more really quiet singing from the men. The Vaudémont of Piotr Beczala sounds youthful - he must have been an estimable King Roger in the Amsterdam (2001/2001) production of the Szymanowski opera. He has all the fleshy yielding power we know from Hvorostovsky and Atlantov with just a trace of vibrato. He can be best heard in the long duet with Iolanta (tr. 15 of CD1). Olga Mykytenko as Iolanta is in exceptional voice with an even more celebrated international career in front of her if this CD is anything to go by. I hope that she will not then forsake the less exalted but fascinating roles such as this one. She sings with commanding technical control and with a power that is unleashed judiciously and naturally. Her repeated cries of Atchivo? (Why?) ring out in grandeur in her Arioso - Why until now have I not shed tears (tr. 3, CD1). Definitely a track to sample as also is the tr. 15 duet on CD1.

The praise can be shared around. Even the subordinate roles do well. Nina Romanova, Bella Kabanova and Larissa Kostyuk do enchantingly well singing pp in the trio (Sleep, May the angels waft you to dreamland) for Martha, Brigitte and Laura. Trust Tchaikovsky to make a gift of this delightful music to collateral characters. It is not far from the famous (‘British Airways’) duet from Lakmé.

However not quite everything is plain sailing: Benno Schollum is evidently under pressure in his CD1 tr.8 monologue as King René and this strain comes out in a wobble. Nevertheless the audience loved it and I have heard worse. There is applause at the end of many of the arias. Otherwise the audience is very quiet.

Instrumental details are vividly captured. The bark of the horns has a gripping and mordant authenticity in CD1 tr.14 at 3.41. The harp, flute, clarinet and trumpet all have significant solo opportunities.

The marvellous melody associated with the blessing of light (first encountered in the garden scene in tr. 15 CD 1 and sung in tr. 2 CD 2) and is related to the great horn-led tune in Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Here it is lent epiphanic renewal by the slightest adjustments and re-tunings. A variant of this fine melody also appears as the resounding hymn to light that closes the work on CD2 tr.6.

Now to the readings from Pushkin's ‘Onegin’ alternating with excerpts from Tchaikovsky's opera. I have no Russian at all but was impressed by the rolling combination of soft and harsh colouration heard in the realisation (nothing as pedestrian as a reading) by Alla Demidova. On occasion the reading accompanies the orchestral contribution. This works very well. A similar effect is secured in Prokofiev's melodrama on Onegin. You can hear the Prokofiev on Chandos in a fine English reading by Timothy and Sam West and Niamh Cusack. However the Russian language has more atmosphere as you can hear in the Abdullayev LP recording made on Melodiya in the 1970s - now there’s one that should be reissued.

This Fedoseyev-directed version of Iolanta prompts reappraisal of Relief issues. First of all let's exorcise the criticisms that have usually accompanied Relief releases - especially the Rimsky operas and the Fedoseyev Tchaikovsky symphony series. Here the recording is exemplary. There is no shortage of heft, impact and transparency. It is all captured in the lively acoustic of the Moscow Conservatoire. Some other Relief recordings have been opaque but this one is just splendid and may spell a new era for the label. The recording level is set higher than usual so watch the volume setting on your amplifier.

What about documentation? This time there is a synopsis plus a full libretto in transliterated Russian and with parallel translations into English and German. This is keyed into tracks (of which there are 21 for the opera and 14 for the alternating Demidova reading). Navigation and study could hardly be easier. So far so good.

It is a pity that the Onegin tracks were not identified in the booklet with the first line of the original for the acted sections and the name of the aria or orchestral extract for the sections from the opera.

I have not been able to compare alternatives of Iolanta but the Galina Gorchakova version (442 796-2) in Philips' Kirov series with Gergiev is highly regarded. It is from 1994. Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich recorded the opera for Erato (2292 45973-2) as they did with Prokofiev's War and Peace. Once again at this stage in her career Vishnevskaya was no longer the fresh and innocent girl and her portrayal surely suffers. I also recall an EMI-Melodiya 2LP box issued during the 1970s. Perhaps someone can tell me what I am recalling. I remember that being an excellent reading full of virile attack but with scarifying sound and some fairly squally soprano contributions.

The very un-Russian eruption of enthusiastic applause at the end of Fedoseyev’s Iolanta says it all. This is a most accomplished and life-imbued version of Iolanta. All lovers of Tchaikovsky’s music, especially the opera-philes, but also those who know him only from Onegin and have not dared to explore further, must track this down. A top recommmendation.

Rob Barnett

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