Tchaikovsky’s final opera, the luxuriously melodic “Iolanta”, was presented at the Opéra de Lyon as the first half of a Peter Sellars-directed double bill, that was followed by Stravinsky’s “Perséphone”
Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Iolanta
The “Iolanta” title role was assumed by the Russian lyric soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko, whose soft, pleasant vibrato was enlisted for a beautifully conceived portrayal of the blind princess.
Scherbachenko, who won the 2009 Cardiff Singers of the World competition, had appeared at Opéra de Lyon 12 years earlier in the French premiere of Shostakovich’s satirical operetta, “Moscow, Cheryomushki”.
[Below: Ekaterina Scherbachenko (center) as the blind princess Iolanta; edited image, based on a J-P Maurin photograph, courtesy of the Opéra de Lyon.]
Arnold Rutkowski as Vaudémont
The engaging Polish tenor Arnold Rutkowski, was the ardent Burgundian Knight Vaudémont, who falls in love with her, discovers Iolanta’s blindness, and with sensitivity, makes her aware of her infirmity.
Both the scenes of Rutkowski’s Vaudémont with his close friend, the Duke of Burgundy (Maxim Aniskin) and with Scherbachenko’s Iolanta were stylishly performed.
[Below: Vaudémont (Arnold Rutkowski, left) and Robert (Maxim Aniskin, right) and are mystified by what they have found; edited image, based on a J-P Maurin photograph, courtesy of the Opéra de Lyon.]
Maxim Aniskin as Robert
Russian baritone Maxim Aniskin performed the role of Robert, the Duke of Burgundy, engaged to Iolanta when both Robert and Iolanta were children but who is in love with another. Aniskin’s sturdy baritone had an eloquent sound.
Sellars’ staging at times suggested a much deeper bond between duke and knight than one would expect from most early medieval lord-vassal relationships.
Dmitry Ulyanov as King René
King René, Iolanta’s father (who has forbidden anyone to explain to Iolanta that she is without the gift of sight) was sung with authority by the deep-voiced Russian basso Dmitry Ulyanov.
[Below: Dmitry Ulyanov was King René; edited image, based on a Javier de Real photograph for the Teatro Liceo, Madrid.]
Sir Willard White as Ibn-Hakim
Vaudémont’s death sentence for revealing Iolanta’s blindness to her is averted when a Morroccan physician, sung by Jamaican-born British bass-baritone Sir Willard White, devises a cure for her ailment.
I had first seen Willard White 41 years earlier as Osmin in Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” at the San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera Theater near the beginning of his illustrious career. At age 69, he still made a powerful impression as Ibn-Hakim.
[Below: Sir Willard White as Ibn-Hakia; edited image, based on a Pascal Victor photograph for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival.]
Other cast members were Vasily Efimov as Alméric, Pavel Kudinov was Bertrand, Diana Montague was Marta, Maria Bochmanova was Brigitta and Krina Demurova was Laura.
Martyn Brabbins conducted the Orchestre, Chours et Maitrise de l’Opéra de Lyon. Martin Pakledinaz designed the costumes, James F. Ingalls the lighting. Bohdan Shved was Chef des Chouers. The production was from the Teatro Real de Madrid.
Making the Case for “Iolanta”
“Iolanta” has been the beneficiary of advocacy over the past several years by leading operatic singers and conductors.
In the United States new productions have been mounted at the Metropolitan Opera and The Dallas Opera, in Europe at the Opéra National de Paris and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
In addition to Scherbachenko such international stars as Anna Netrebko and Sonya Yoncheva have promoted the work.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume, an advocate for the work, has toured Europe in concert versions starring Netrebko (with whom he recorded the work) and led The Dallas Opera production with Scherbachenko [A Conversation with Maestro Emmanuel Villaume.]
The Burgundian Connection
“Iolanta” takes place in the Kingdom of Provence and has as among its characters, the king and princess of the ancient kingdom of Provence, as well as the Duke of Burgundy and a Burgundian knight.
It seems wholly appropriate that an “Iolanta” production be created with the idea of mounting it at Aix-en-Provence Festival (where it was seen in 2015) and at the Opéra de Lyon, itself located in the ancient Burgundian capital city.
I suspect that if the idea for a new production of “Iolanta” had focused on the story’s location in Provence and Burgundy as the starting point, the production might have looked and might have been staged quite differently from the collaboration between director Peter Sellars and designer George Tsypin.
[Below: George Tsypin’s sets for the Peter Sellars production of “Iolanta”; edited image, based on a Pascal Victor photograph for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence festival.]
Even though Stravinsky’s “Perséphone” followed “Iolanta” on the evening’s double bill, the evidence is strong that the plans for staging “Iolanta”evolved after the decisions were made as to how “Perséphone” should be staged.
Thus, it is a production of “”Iolanta” that required conformity to a set of elements that were created to solve riddles in a much different work. Those elements are not limited to Tsypin’s unattractive sets. They include also the inventory of gestures, that evolve out of the classical Cambodian dancing styles, that Sellars imposes on the artists. The result is an inappropriately choreographed performance of an unabashedly Romantic opera.
[Below: Vaudémont (Arnold Rutkowski, right) tries to explain sight to the blind Iolanta (Ekaterina Scherbachenko, left); edited image, based on a Pascal Victor photograph for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival.]
Sellars’ “Iolanta” in Lyon is a beautifully sung, but, in my estimation, a sub-optimally staged production of a Tchaikovsky work that deserves productions that advance to cause of “Iolanta” as it moves from “rarity” status to a more secure place in the performance repertory.