was part of a double bill commission for a one-act opera
and a two-act ballet, to be performed on a single evening. The companion
ballet became The Nutcracker
, and the composer worked on both
simultaneously, turning from one to the other whenever he got stuck. The
libretto is by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest and is based on Henrik
Hertz's play 'King René's Daughter' (1864). It was premiered on 18
December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.
Princess Iolanta is the daughter of René, King of Provence and she was
born blind. The King makes elaborate arrangements to keep the fact of her
blindness from her. Ibn-Hakir, a great Moorish physician tells the King that
she will only gain her sight if she longs to see, so she must be told about
her blindness. A Burgundian knight Vaudémont arrives at the castle. He at
once falls for Iolanta, and 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, but Iolanta is cured,
Vaudémont is saved and they are betrothed. Iolanta is enraptured by the
world she can now see, and the opera closes with a chorus of praise.
The opera is sometimes dismissed as a slight piece, and it is a little
uneven, as are several of Tchaikovsky's operas. But it has several really
fine passages, including the ingratiating prelude and delicate opening
scene, and the passionate duet for Iolanta and Vaudémont. If it is not
or the Queen of Spades
, it is well worth
getting to know, as it has a unique atmosphere, often carried by the
orchestra, appropriate to its Provençal fairy-tale setting. And the less
inspired moments can hardly be called longueurs
, since the whole
piece lasts just over 90 minutes. If you are a keen Tchaikovskian with only
the two Pushkin dramas mentioned earlier in your collection, I would even
say this could be the next work to add. But is this the recording?
Anna Netrebko has been touring this piece over recent years, on a mission
to open the ears of non-Russians to the delights of the work. This recording
was made live at one of the venues and it is generally a success, if not
quite the triumph that has generally been claimed. Certainly the star lead
does not disappoint. Amongst the credits inside the back cover of the
booklet we learn that "Anna Netrebko wears jewellery by Chopard", but it is
her singing that dazzles here, shining and seductive for much of the score.
This is one of the most glamorous voices of our day, and Netrebko is
especially affecting singing in her own language and in a role she clearly
inhabits completely. But live recording has its hazards, and the big
climaxes bring some squally sound from her. In the tenor lead role of
Vaudémont Sergey Skorokhodov is consistently fine, a superb voice
sensitively deployed, his singing replete with Slavonic ardour but free from
any extreme Slavonic vibrato.
Alexey Markov (Robert), Vitalij Kowaljow (King René) and Lucas Meachem
(Ibn-Hakir), are all more than acceptable pieces of casting. The Slovenian
choir and orchestra are well drilled, although the conductor Emmanuel
Villaume, while always effective, is less dramatic - and less idiomatic -
than some Russian rivals of earlier sets.
Those rivals have included Ermler, Rostropovich, Fedoseyev, and Valery
Gergiev. The Gergiev version came from Philips in 1996, with the Kirov
forces and a strong cast led by the great soprano Galina Gorchakova, and on
balance that remains for me the first choice. But I will certainly want to
hear this version on occasion, not least for the quality of the soprano and
tenor leads. It has excellent sound and full text and translation, and
currently costs about half the price of the Philips set.