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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Iolanta - lyric opera in one act (1892)
Anna Netrebko (soprano) - Iolanta; Sergey Skorokhodov (tenor) - Vaudémont; Alexey Markov (baritone) - Robert; Monika Bohinec (mezzo) - Martha; Junho You (tenor) - Almerik; Lucas Meachem (bass) - Ibn-Hakia; Vitalij Kowaljow (bass) - King René; Luka Debevec Mayer (bass) - Bertrand; Nuška Rojko - Laura; Theresa Plut - Brigitte; Slovenian Chamber Choir
Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra/Emmanuel Villaume
rec. live, 2012, Philharmonie, Essen, Germany
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4793969 [68:25 + 24:41]

Iolanta 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 Eugene Onegin 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.

Roy Westbrook




 




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