Tchaikovsky: Iolanta (DG)
How fortunes change! Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta began life as the more successful pairing in a double bill, premiered in St Petersburg in 1892 alongside his ballet The Nutcracker. Since then, it has fallen into obscurity outside Russia, whereas Nutcracker is now an inescapable part of Christmas. The opera has a libretto by the composer’s brother, Modest, based on the Danish play King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz.
It is, in truth, a sentimental fairy tale. Princess Iolanta is blind from birth but – through the king’s edict – she has been kept in the dark. Yet she senses there is something her companions are not telling her. A stranger, Vaudémont, friend of Duke Robert (Iolanta’s betrothed) wanders into the garden and falls in love with her. He discovers her blindness through her inability to distinguish between red and white roses. Iolanta falls in love with Vaudémont, who explains light and colour to her. Now the truth has been revealed, the conditions are right, according to the Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia, to treat her blindness. The King threatens Vaudémont with death should the treatment fail, but this is just a spur to make his daughter desperate to see. Ibn-Hakia works his miracle and, cured of her blindness, Iolanta leads a hymn of praise.
Tchaikovsky’s music is something of a guilty pleasure in these quarters – it has a sweet, cloying quality, which suits the libretto perfectly. Passionate arias and duets, and a moving final ensemble make it a score to cherish in the right hands.
Anna Netrebko has championed the opera outside Russia, leading a European concert tour in 2012 from which this recording derived. Incidentally, Mariusz Treliński’s Mariinsky production, which has just opened at the Metropolitan Opera (left), is available to view on YouTube. On disc, Netrebko is in very fine form, although I can’t help wondering if she shouldn’t have recorded it a shade earlier in her career. If you listen to the recording of Iolanta’s aria “Otčego eto prežde ne znala” (Why, until now, have I not shed tears?) that she made on her superb Russian Album, or even the live Mariinsky performance from 2009, you’ll hear her in lighter, more girlish form. Now Netrebko’s soprano has darkened considerably, which makes her perfect for Verdi roles – a stunning Lady Macbeth in the autumn, for example – but gives a weight to Iolanta it doesn’t really need. Galina Gorchakova, a soprano similarly suited to big Verdi roles, finds greater lightness in her reading for Valery Gergiev (Philips). Still, Netrebko gives a committed, dramatic reading and is extremely affecting at the point where she is exposed to light and colour for the first time.
A largely Russian cast does a largely fine job; Vitalij Kowaljow isn’t as rock-steady a Russian bass as some of his compatriots of yore, but digs his heels in nicely as King René. Sergey Skorokhodov makes an ardent Vaudémont and Alexey Markov, if not as mellifluous as Dmitri Hvorostovsky (luxury casting on Philips), is a strong Robert. Among the non-Russians in the cast, Lucas Meachem is the standout as Ibn-Hakia, with a warm lyrical baritone.
It’s a shame Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces weren’t engaged here, presumably for contract reasons having previously recorded the opera. (They certainly joined the cast for two Liceu performances at the end of the tour.) Instead, we have the adequate Slovenian Philharmonic conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, who revels in Tchaikovsky’s lush scoring, although he’s marginally swifter than Gergiev.
The recording won’t be to everyone’s taste. The DG engineers have balanced the singers far more forwardly than the orchestra and also seem to have added an almost religious halo of reverberation around the voices, which sounds most unnatural. This is more a problem on headphones than on hi-fi speakers, so do try and sample before buying. With Gergiev’s Mariinsky recording out of the catalogue (although available for download), this new set is a recommendable place to discover this marvellous opera.