Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta (Metropolitan Opera Live in HD, February 14, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday’s Metropolitan Opera Live in HD telecast was of a peculiar double-bill of two one-act operas, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (the original Hungarian title, A kékszakállú herceg vára, literally translates as The Blue-Bearded Duke’s Castle, but his title is usually left off when the opera is performed outside of Bartók’s native Hungary). “Nothing says ‘Happy Valentine’s day’ like an opera about a serial killer of women,” Charles joked about the presence of Bluebeard’s Castle on the bill. The idea of presenting these two operas together was that of the director, Mariusz Trelinski, a Polish filmmaker who’s apparently never done an opera before but thought these two would work together because they’re both about romantic obsession — though as the double bill unfolded it was clear that what really linked the pieces is the concept of light, and the symbolic significance of light, even though the two composers and their librettists (Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest for Iolanta and Béla Balázs, who later collaborated on the adaptation of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Threepenny Opera for the 1930 G. W. Pabst film, for Bluebeard’s Castle) have diametrically opposed views of the symbolic nature of “light.” The Tchaikovskys present “light” in its usual symbolic meaning of “enlightenment,” of coming to a broader understanding of who and what one is and the actual truth, while Bartók and Balázs have — pardon the pun — a darker view of “light,” as a force that penetrates and reveals truths that would better be left hidden. Based on a Danish play called King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz, Iolanta is a story of a young woman (Anna Netrebko) who was born blind. To keep her from being traumatized by her disability, her father, King René (Ilya Bannik), has locked Iolanta in a room where she’s taken care of by three nurses (whom Trelinski and costume designer Marek Adamski decided to dress like nuns) and where the very concept of sight is kept from her; as far as Iolanta knows, the only function of eyes is to produce tears. René is so determined to maintain Iolanta’s isolation that he’s posted a sign on the door to the cottage where she lives stating that anyone who enters will be executed. Needless to say, someone does crash Iolanta’s cottage — the tenor lead, a French knight named Vaudémont (Piotr Beczala, whom we’ve encountered on previous Met telecasts and the second syllable of whose name is pronounced with an ugly throat-clearing sound it’s hard to square with “-zala”) — who shows up with his friend Robert (Aleksei Markov), who at first seems like the usual tenor’s dumb sidekick but turns out to be considerably more important than that.

Robert sings an aria that seems to have got the biggest applause of any of the principals’ solos in which he says he doesn’t want a girl with an ethereal air about her like Iolanta; he wants someone more down-to-earth and he’s already picked her, Matilda (a character we hear about but never actually see). Vaudémont falls in love with Iolanta at first sight and they sing a big duet. Meanwhile, René has brought in a Moroccan doctor, Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Azizov), who says he has a treatment that stands a chance of giving Iolanta sight — but only if she wants it, meaning that in order for the treatment to work she first must know she’s blind and other people aren’t, the awareness her dad has been keeping her from all these years. In the opening of the telecast Elchin Azizov was introduced as someone who’s sung the title role of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (now there’s a Russian opera for you!) and who’s also participated in productions of Wagner’s Ring — it didn’t say what role he’d sung but, based on his performance yesterday, he certainly has the voice for Wotan and, though all the principals in yesterday’s Iolanta were excellent, it’s Azizov from whom I’d really want to hear more. Anyway, Iolanta’s dad René catches her and Vaudémont canoodling and asks Vaudémont if he didn’t see the sign warning that anyone entering Iolanta’s cottage would be put to death. Vaudémont said he did, and René asks him, “But you went in anyway?,” to which I was tempted to joke, “Of course I did! I’m a typical operatic tenor, and we do stupid things like that.” René eventually agrees to spare Vaudémont’s life, but as for marrying Iolanta, René says he can forget that because when she was still a child he promised her to someone else — and Robert (ya remember Robert?) drops the bomb that he’s the someone else Iolanta is promised to but he really doesn’t want to marry her because he’d rather be with Matilda (ya remember Matilda?).

So René agrees to release Robert from his vow to marry Iolanta, leaving her free to marry whomever she wants, and just at this juncture she decides she wants to be able to see after all, so Ibn-Hakia (ya remember Ibn-Hakia?) gives her the treatment, it works, only when Iolanta finally can see she’s momentarily unsure the visible world is all it’s cracked up to be. Nonetheless, she agrees to marry Vaudémont and all ends happily. (It occurred to me that if Verdi had been writing this, he and his librettist would have had René kill Vaudémont and insist that Robert marry Iolanta, whereupon she would have killed herself. Verdi and his usual collaborators weren’t ones to end an opera with a wedding when they could end it with a bloodbath!) Iolanta is an interesting and sometimes moving opera but also a problematic one; one Fanfare reviewer suggested that Tchaikovsky identified with Iolanta because he too felt isolated from the world of normal human relationships — not from being blind but from being Gay — but that really doesn’t come through in the opera. Tchaikovsky actually wrote 11 operas but he’s primarily known to modern-day classical music lovers for the last three symphonies, the 1812 Overture and the big ballets, particularly The Nutcracker. Amazingly, when it premiered in 1890 at the St. Petersburg Opera it was actually presented on a double bill with a complete performance of The Nutcracker — 19th century audiences had a lot more stamina than we do! It occurred to me that before composing Iolanta Tchaikovsky had set an almost identical story in the ballet Sleeping Beauty — and the ballet has considerably more variety and is simply a more compelling piece of music. Iolanta’s big scene at the beginning (with commentary from her nurses) and the love duet with Vaudémont both sound awfully droopy after a while, and suddenly Tchaikovsky will interrupt the love stuff with martial music announcing the involvement of René, Robert and the other characters from the more action-adventure parts of the story, creating a jarring effect.

Of Tchaikovsky’s 11 operas only two ever made it within hailing distance of the international repertory, Eugen Onegin (which I regard as a crashing bore, all the more infuriating because the novel by Alexander Pushkin on which it’s based is an absolutely wicked and brilliant piece of social satire that in the hands of someone more cynical and less sentimental than Tchaikovsky — Prokofieff, maybe? — could have been the basis for a great opera) and The Queen of Spades (a nice work, everything Onegin was not, in which Tchaikovsky mostly kept to the hard edges of his source story, also by Pushkin). I’d rate Iolanta on the basis of this one hearing as above Onegin but below Queen of Spades — and the Met contributed its usual (these days) mix of spectacular singing and silly production. Iolanta’s cottage is a room that gets pushed around on the big turntable of the Met’s stage so we either see her or not depending on the demands of the action. The direction is workmanlike but not especially inspired, but the singing was great: Netrebko, singing in her native language and in a role for which her basically lyric soprano is the right sort of voice (as opposed to the Met Lucia di Lammermoor, also co-starring Beczala, in which she was clearly uncomfortable with all that coloratura ornamentation), gets the most out of the music. Beczala copes well enough with a typically undercharacterized tenor-idiot role and the other singers are formidable, especially given the relatively unimaginative music Tchaikovsky gives them to sing. That’s the problem with Iolanta; its music is appropriate for the story and superficially expressive, but there aren’t any really great tunes and it gives the story the right overall emotional climate but doesn’t really stir the heart — and Trelinski’s rather silly production, which he said was based on the look of 1940’s film noir but really wasn’t (about the only concession in that direction was having the characters wear at least vaguely modern dress), balanced on the thin edge of risibility — you wanted to walk into the stage and say, “Iolanta’s not blind — just dizzy from the way you keep turning her house around on that damned turntable!”