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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Iolanta – Opera in one act (1892) [93 mins]
Libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, after ‘King René’s Daughter’ by Henrik Hertz
The Nutcracker – Ballet in two acts (1892) [95 mins]
Choreography by Sisi Larbi Cherkaoi, Édouard Lock and Arthur Pita
Corps de Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris
Choeurs et Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris/Alain Altinoglu
Bonus: Behind the Scenes [52 mins]
rec. March 2016, Palais Garnier
BELAIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC445 [240 mins]

I must admit that it has taken me some time to get around to reviewing this Blu-ray disc. I first watched it about three months ago and was not greatly enthused, so much so that I put it to one side and forgot about it, the problem being the rather beige production.

There is a precedence for pairing these two works together, indeed Tchaikovsky received a commission from the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre for a double bill, with the resulting works Iolanta and The Nutcracker – the composer’s final dramatic works, premiered on the 18th of December 1892. Whilst the reception of Iolanta was quite favourable, the original production of The Nutcracker was not a success. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century that it began to become popular.

The story of Iolanta revolves around King René and his insistence that his daughter is not to be told she is blind. Whilst the story is based on the early life of Yolande, Duchess of Lorraine, there is no evidence that she was ever blind. The action takes place in a beautiful enclosed garden, or as it is portrayed here, a rather bland sitting room, which makes a mockery of Robert singing of climbing over rocks when here he is climbing in through a window. The King arrives with a famed physician Ibn-Hakia, who claims that her blindness can be cured but the King refuses to put Iolanta through the treatment in case it fails, and she finds out she is blind. Shortly after this, a friend of her betrothed, Duke Robert, arrives after sneaking into the room, and perceives she is blind by asking her to count the roses he has picked without touching them. It is here that Iolanta comes to realise the something she had always felt was missing is her sight, and sings “why have I been given eyes? So that I can cry!”. This leads to a toughing scene where Robert tells Iolanta what light is and that it is the greatest gift from God while she on the other hand sings she does not need to see to experience the wonders of creation. The King enters to find the two young people discussing things. Discovering Robert has told Iolanta about light and she now realises she is blind, the King decides Robert must face the punishment and die. Iolanta begs for Robert’s life. At this the doctor reappears and the King asks him to treat his daughter. Whilst the treatment is taking place the King and Robert talk and it is at this point that her betrothed, the Duke of Burgundy, arrives and confesses he loves another. Robert then confesses his love for Iolanta again, and the King states they can marry as long as she regains sight, to which Robert attests he wants to devote his life to Iolanta with or without sight. The doctor and Iolanta return. She is wearing a bandage and, once it is removed, she can see the light and gradually becomes aware of those around her, including her father and Robert, with the couple once again announcing their undying love for each other, at which time the opera ends. The singing is very good, especially from Sonya Yoncheva as Iolanta and Andrei Zhilikhovsky as Robert, it is just that the overall feel of the production is lacking.

At this point, we become aware the staging of the opera was part of the birthday celebrations for Marie (The Nutcracker), after which the party gets into full swing, along with the games including ‘statues’ and ‘musical chairs’, all danced not ‘en pointe’ but rather on heals (high heals to be exact) and what dances – the Macarena at one point and Voguing at another. One of the presents is the vinyl set of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and this forms the musical background to the event. Here is where things go from barely acceptable to awful. This is a production by Dmitri Tcherniakov, who derived a new scenario for the ballet which, to me, was spoiled by his work. I have a couple of DVDs of the piece, both of which keep to the traditional story based on a tale by E. T. A. Hoffman, and both are infinitely preferable to this adaptation. I mean, for example, the end of act one looks as if they were dancing in nuclear fallout. It doesn’t get much better in the second act with its swirling projected imagery and a hippopotamus walking through the woods. More modern style dancing here, which in the correct context I quite like, but it is just that this is not the right place even when set against a room full of giant mid twentieth century toys, including a pair of Soviet cosmonauts. It doesn’t help that the dance of the ‘sugarplum fairy’ is danced with shuffling conical penguins whilst the waltz section is more like an old people’s tea dance. The end cannot come quickly enough and when it does, it comes with a burst of flames from a giant flaming meteor that explodes and then, suddenly, we are back in the sitting room. No, this is not the production for me. Perhaps I am too stuck in my ways but by the end, I was wishing for any other performance, even Walt Disney’s Fantasia or better still the music on CD.

The playing of the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris under Alain Altinoglu is the only saving grace here. It is detailed, clear, with a strong sense of purpose and good sound throughout; it is just that I don’t know what the purpose of the ballet was. The ballet makes the opera look a lot better than it actually is. If you are buying the disc for this, there isn’t that much choice, not on DVD or Blu-ray anyway. If you are interested in the ballet then there is plenty to go for instead of this, with the Russian productions or that from the Royal Opera House leading the way.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Robert Cummings

Performance details
Iolanta – Sonya Yoncheva
Vaudémont – Arnold Rutkowski
King René – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Robert – Andrei Zhilikhovsky
Ibn-Hakia, a doctor – Vito Priante
Marta – Elena Zaremba
Almèric – Roman Shulakov
Bertrand – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Brigitta – Anna Patalong
Laura – Paola Gardina
(sung in Russian)
The Nutcracker
Marie – Marion Barbeau
Vaudémont – Stéphane Bullion
Drosselmeyer –Nicolas Paul
The father – Aurélien Houette
The mother – Alice Renavand
Robert – Takeru Coste
The Sister – Caroline Bance
Corps de Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris
Choeurs et Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris/Alain Altinoglu
Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano
Stage direction and sets: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costume Design: Elena Zaitseva
Lighting design: Gleb Filshtinsky
Choreography: Arthur Pita, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Edouard Lock
rec. March, 2016 Opéra National de Paris (Palais Garnier)
Bonus: Iolanta/The Nutcracker – Behind the Scenes
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Korean, Japanese. Booklet notes: English, French, German.
Sound format: 2.0 PCM & 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
Video format: 1 BD50 Full HD Colour 16:9

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