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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Iolanta - lyric opera in one act (1892) [107:30]
Iolanta - Olesya Golovneva (soprano)
Godefroy de Vaudémont - Dmytro Popov (tenor)
King René - Alexander Vinogradov (bass)
Duke Robert - Andrei Bondarenko (baritone)
Alméric - John Heuzenroeder (tenor)
Ibn-Hakia - Vladislav Sulimsky (baritone)
Martha - Justyna Samborska (alto)
Bertrand - Marc-Olivier Oetterli (bass)
Brigitta - Dalia Schaechter (soprano)
Laura - Marta Wryk (mezzo)
Gürzenich-Orchester, Cologne and Cologne Opera Chorus/Dmitri Kitajenko
rec. live, Cologne Philharmonie, 2014
OEHMS OC963 [43:17 + 64:03]

Iolanta, Tchaikovsky's last opera, was written in 1891, just two years before his death. It is difficult to explain the infrequency of its performance, as it shows the composer in his full powers producing some glorious music. The plot is, perhaps, rather politically incorrect nowadays, with characters who believe that the blindness of Iolanta is something shameful which needs to be hidden even from the character herself although, to be fair to the piece, both King René and Vaudémont eventually recognise that this is a mistaken reaction. It is perhaps more likely that it is its length which makes it awkward. The opera is in one continuous act lasting about an hour and a half, so it is distinctly on the short side for an evening's entertainment but a little on the long side to be half of a double bill. The only operas of this length and structure that have gained a real place in the repertoire are Salome and Elektra. However, things are perhaps changing; this is the second recording of the piece to be issued in the last year or so, so its quality seems to be gaining greater recognition. However, it must be said that both this and the Netrebko/Villaume recordings are taken from concert performances, not staged productions, so it has still to find a niche in the theatre.

The performance issued here is a good one, but it faces very strong competition from both the recent Villaume set and the 20-year-old Gergiev/Kirov recording (with Galina Gorchakova - Philips 442 796-2). All the principals are Russian, but one of the disappointments about almost all of the cast is that they make very little of the words. No libretto is provided with this set, but, using a separate one, I found that if I looked up from it for a short while, it was very difficult to find my place again because the diction is so indistinct. Golovneva as Iolanta has an attractive voice, though not one of outstanding quality. Her top is secure and the middle warm, but her style is generalised and rather bland. There is little word painting or dynamic contrast, and her swallowing of consonants leads to a rather featureless legato. Her love interest, Vaudémont, is also well sung, and Popov has much better diction. He has quite a heroic "ping" to the top of the voice and handles the line with sensitivity and a good legato. As King René, Vinogradov does not have as rich a tone as I would ideally like and the top of the voice is a little loose, but he makes a decent job of the part, though, again, words don't seem to very important to him. Bondarenko's Duke Robert is very much along the same lines as the others - a good voice but insufficient detail to make the character really live. His paean of praise to his beloved Matilde goes for very little. The finest overall vocal performance is probably Sulimsky's Ibn-Hakai. This a character part which he puts over with exactly the sort of textual pointing missing in the other singers.

Kitajenko's conducting shows very much the same qualities as his singers. It is instructive to note the lengths of the performances: Villaume and Gergiev take almost the same time, about 94 minutes, whereas Kitajenko takes almost quarter of an hour longer, and not to the music's benefit. Villaume is very good, but Gergiev's passion and detail are even finer. Just listen, for example, to the way the Gergiev points the orchestral detail in the string lines in King René's aria to see why his performance is so much more involving than Kitajenko's. Both of the other conductors have a sense of momentum and involvement which Kitajenko does not match.

Exactly the same must be said of the soloists. Gorchakova (Gergiev) may not have the creamy tone and delicacy of Netrebko (Villaume), but I found her even more involving, and she has an almost heroic quality to her gleaming top. Both these sopranos have an opulence of phrasing which Golovenko lacks. There is less disparity with the Vaudémonts, but both Skorokhodov (Villaume) and, even more, Grigoriam (Gergiev) have greater vocal and interpretative resources. Alexashkin (Gergiev) and Kowaljov (Villaume) have more impressive voices than Vinogradov, and neither Bondarenko nor Markov (Villaume) can match Hvorostovsky (Gergiev) either vocally or in characterisation as Duke Robert.

If this set were the only recording of Iolanta I would be quite content with it, but in this field it comes a definite third place. Even the recording is inferior to either of the other sets; the voices are rather distant and lack presence, at times they are even drowned a little. The Gergiev may be over twenty years old, but the sound has a detail and punch lacking in this new set. My own choice would be for Gergiev, though not by much, but go for either of the older sets rather than this new one if you want to experience this glorious opera fully.

Paul Steinson



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