IOLANTAby Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky
Libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky
Based on the Danish play King Rene’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz
Sung in Russian with English supertitles
Dallas Opera’s Heights of Passion 2014-2015 Season
Conductor – Emmanuel Villaume
Stage Director/Production Designer – Christian Räth
Costume Designer – Susan Cox
Projections Designer – Elaine J. McCarthy
Lighting Designer – Thomas C. Hase
Assistant Director – Ophelia Wolf
Wig and Makeup Designer – David Zimmerman
Chorus Master – Alexander Rom
Stage Manager – Lisa Marie Lange
Iolanta – Ekaterina Scherbachenko
Count Vaudémont – Segey Skorokhodov
Brigitta – Joanna Mongiardo
Laura – Lauren McNeese
Marta – Tamara Mumford
Robert – Andrei Bondarenko
King René – Mikhail Kolelishvili
Alméric – Andrew Bidlack
Ibn-Hakia – Vladislav Sulimsky
Bertrand – Jordan Bisch
Reviewed Performance: 4/10/2015
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In his pre-opera lecture, Chorus Master Alexander Rom explained how Tchaikovsky’s music gave each character the job of representing a different type of love: parental love, awakening love, love through wisdom, healing love, and, of course, ideal love. Mr. Rom’s presentation was well received by the audience members and a key factor to me and my guest's (a fellow soprano) gaining a deeper understanding of the opera’s unifying themes and musical motifs.
Having heard Mr. Rom’s countless yarns in the past as a Dallas Opera chorus singer, I must say that hearing his intense storytelling skills once again brought me joyfully back to those days in rehearsal when, in his thick Russian accent, he would bring to life an element in the opera being rehearsed that day. Rehearsal after rehearsal (and there were many!) he motivated a roomful of chorus singers to come together as one and put not only our voices but our souls into the music. It was evident in listening to the chorus in this production that Mr. Rom had once again achieved his goal. The chorus created a sonorous blanket of sound. Although they performed only offstage, the chorus provided a lush extra layer of opulent sound, sight unseen.
The story in brief is about all-conquering/healing love - a blind princess gains sight only because she is motivated to accept the cure through pure dedication to her new love. For once we have an opera with a cheery finale; no stabbings, cliff jumping or trips to the fiery inferno, just hugs and kisses from a princess who eventually realizes that eyes are not just for crying but seeing. The charming tale is a based on the Danish drama King Rene’s Daughter by Henryk Hertz, and the libretto was written by Tchaikovsky’s own brother Modest, who need not be modest about the result.
In Iolanta, Tchaikovsky chose to use a fairytale which went against the grain of his usual taste for real life people and situations as the fodder for his operas, and yet this particular opera parallels the composer's own life. As a boy he had an idealistic youth that was darkened when his family moved. He was a sensitive child prone to crying. He’d been protected from the outside world much like the gentle princess Iolanta.
Emmanuel Villaume conducted the orchestra to play the opening theme, scored only for wind instruments, with a lovely dark sound that depicted Iolanta’s blindness. Under Villaume’s baton the orchestra continued to give great justice to the masterful instrumental texture, including subtle use of the harp and dazzling brass fanfares. Tchaikovsky gave as much importance to the orchestration as to the singing. Just a few times I felt the conductor could have been more sensitive to the singers’ volumes and held back more at climatic points, only because the softer singers did not hold their own against the orchestra. Thus, I lost the final notes of their arias, due to the orchestra’s grand crescendos. This was a tad disappointing, like being given a banana split but at the last second snatching away the whip cream and the cherry. The title role, Iolanta, was sung by Russian soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko. This woman was a treat to behold with her striking voice and fine acting skills to boot—the full package! Although this is a shorter opera, it is still an endurance test for this character that does much of the singing. Ms. Scherbachenko consistently sang with sincerity and penetrating lyricism. Although her character is blind throughout, the singer clearly saw into Iolanta’s core and relayed that to the audience and to her fellow characters. I never sensed fatigue in her voice and once Iolanta received the cure and could see her lover, she looked directly into his eyes and sang to him.
I wish I could say the same for her love interest, Count Vaudemont, sung by tenor Segey Skorokhodov. His voice was strong and suitable but cracked on some high notes. Perhaps he was ill as I heard him coughing loudly more than once. Although touted as having performed this role in concert with Anna Netrebko, he, unfortunately, simply was not in good voice. He often stood and sang a concert-like performance minus the acting. When his princess gained her sight, he still didn’t look at her as she gazed at him, radiating love in her eyes. He never saw it!
This is exactly the stereotype that kills opera - when singers “stand and sing” instead of portraying emotion and looking into the faces of their fellow characters. In the role of the father, King Rene, bass singer Mikhail Kolelishvili also often faced outward to the audience. However, he had a powerful commanding voice that was never drowned out by the orchestra. Perhaps his interpretation as a stoic father figure contributed to not looking into his sweet daughter’s face. Singers know to “cheat” to the audience but not face them directly. Several singers in this production need a review of this technique. You can get away with “stand-and-sing” in recitals and concerts but not on the opera stage.
However, many elements came together well in this production of an opera rarely performed in the U.S., but revered in Europe. In the opening scene the stage, strewn with sleeping maidens, was strikingly lit to create lurid shadows. Throughout the opera the projections, designed by Elaine McCarthy, created ethereal feelings with eerie patterns and designs that highlighted the many metaphors in this opera. I would only warn that projections can be overdone. This opera is quite sufficient in creating ethereal mood through the music and occasionally I felt the projections bordered on upstaging.
Stage movement by Director Christian Räth was at its best in the opening scene. The awakening maidens’ synchronized flowing movements looked more like a ballet than opera, and their voices were simultaneously glorious. In Russia, opera and ballet so often go hand-in-hand. In fact, Iolanta was performed as a companion piece with Tchaikovsky’s new ballet, The Nutcracker, in 1892. Strangely, at that time Iolanta was much better received than the ballet.
The costuming was rather blasé, with the princess’ white dress being the only exception. The promotional material featured a fairy-like maiden reclining on an angled tree wearing a delicate gown and floral wreath while surrounded by plush vegetation, trees and birdcages. The black, gray and white costumes and stark/dark minimalistic set actually used were quite different - effective but different than expected. The everyday costuming was simply a missed opportunity. The costumes had more of a late 19th century London look. The Moorish doctor didn't look in any way, shape or form like a Moor and thus, his treatment for the blindness as a mystic healer lacked credibility and was less true to the score. The healer was packaged in a gray three-piece suit, derby hat and round wire rim glasses. Luckily Tchaikovsky’s dreamlike composition for singing and orchestration coupled with the fantastical lighting designed by Thomas Hase saved the production.
Baritone Vladislav Sulimsky knocked his role out of the ballpark with a clear and poignant sound. He was quite effective in the crucial aria when he tells how Iolanta can only receive her sight if she truly wants it—the vital link between the body and the soul.
Nurse Marta, sung by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, had a particularly full-rounded voice that contrasted strongly with Iolanta, a lighter sweet voice. I was wishing Marta had more stage time as I could have listened to her rich tones all night.
This is the closing opera of the “Heights of Passion” season for the Dallas Opera. Suffice it to say, the company’s selection to perform an opera that allows love to conquer all is refreshing. We live in a hands-off, out of touch society that often glorifies in focusing on the negative, and this opera thankfully does just the opposite. I encourage you all to turn off your cell phones, close your laptops, and hug your sweeties while you drop off into fairyland for a romantic evening at the Winspear.
I do hope the Dallas Opera performs Tchaikovsky’s final opera again in the future as this is a fanciful treat to be repeatedly enjoyed.
Dallas Opera’s “Heights of Passion” 2014-2015 Season
Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House
at the AT&T Performing Art Center
2403 Flora Street
Dallas, TX 75201
Remaining performances are April 15th and 18th at 7:30 pm.
Single tickets for the final opera of the season range from $19.00 to $179.00.
For tickets and information, call 214-443-1000 or visit www.dallasopera.org.