A Precursor to Decadentism
Tchaikovsky's 'Iolanta' in Florence,
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Once more, in dealing with the May Music Festival in Florence, we have to recall that the event is in very severe financial stringency and has piled up a major debt. (See Troubles in Florence, 2 May 2015 and 6 May 2013.) This year the festival lasts two months but features only two fully staged operas (Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Britten's Albert Herring) and the world premiere of an opera in a concert version (Vacchi's Lo Specchio Magico) for only one evening, as well as a large number of symphonic and chamber concerts. Albert Herring is the only new opera production; Iolanta is imported from the New York Metropolitan Opera House and Warsaw Weilki Opera House. Both Iolanta and Albert Herring are seldom performed in Italy, however Iolanta has been produced by several major theatres. Albert Herring travelled to a few opera houses in the South as recently as ten years ago. Neither of them, however, seems to fit the festival's mission of rediscovering past forgotten masterpieces.
I was in Florence on 30 April 2016 for the matinée performance of Iolanta. Tchaikovsky's last opera is in a one act, and was planned as a double bill to be staged together with the ballet The Nutcracker. Both the opera and the ballet belong to the realm of fairy tales. They were composed while Tchaikovsky was also working at the Sixth Symphony and was having the worst period in his life; he lost his main source of financial support, and he was under accusation for his sexual affairs with boys of the aristocracy. After a father filed a complaint with the Czar because the composer had seduced his fourteen-year-old son, Tchaikovsky's friends were pressing him to commit suicide. And he did.
These very serious emotional aspects are quite evident in the Sixth Symphony but hardly transpire in the plot of the blind princess of Provence, who in fourteenth century Southern France, is convinced that all human beings cannot see. She travels from darkness to light, thanks to the love of a knight. It is a journey with a happy ending, an anthem to the Glory of God Almighty.
Iolanta does not please all musicologists. For example, Richard Taruskin states that the 'magic in this opera is to be found in its decorative colors' and that the rest is 'quite routine'. Nonetheless, the dramatic confrontations and the arias achieved an independent recital stage popularity. In my view, with its chromatic orchestral score, mixed with Italianate vocal numbers, Iolanta is to be seen and heard as a precursor to decadentism, ie which would have led to Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Tchaikovsky is the Russian musician who most looks westward, even though most of his operas have a national subject and are based on national literature.
The production by Marius Trelińsli and his associates (Boris Kudlićka for stage sets, Marek Adamski for costumes and Marc Heinz for lighting) updates the setting to a central European forest in the nineteen forties and makes it a 'dark comedy'. The choice had a logic at the Met and in Warsaw when Iolanta was in a double bill with Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle but is less meaningful when the opera is performed as a stand-alone piece. Nonetheless, the stage sets, projections and costumes are quite well conceived and provide a good atmosphere for the Princess' loneliness. However, they miss the point in the final scene which remains dark (with the exception of the center stage) while the libretto and music are an anthem to the Light.
Young Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky was a real surprise for the skills he demonstrated in dealing with the complex score and in providing the atmosphere, colors and tints it requires. The singers were generally good but not exceptional. The title role was sung by Victoria Yastrebova, a rather accurate soprano but without the vocal and acting personalities of Anna Netrebko or of Svetla Vassilleva, who I had heard in Rome in the same part. The men's group, especially Ilya Bannik, Vsevolod Grivnov and Elchin Azizov were of very high standard, whilst the girls in Iolanta's court and her nurse were at the professional level of a central or eastern European opera house.
The brand new large theatre seats 1,800. It was half full. There was some open stage applause. Also, at the end, there was applause but not excitement.
Copyright © 3 May 2016 Giuseppe Pennisi,