Nobody wants to be kept in the dark, isolated by a lack of knowledge or pitied by those around them who are in the know. Ignorance, in most cases, offers little bliss.
In Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta, (a new production of which opened at The Dallas Opera over the weekend), the title character finds herself kept utterly in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. The daughter of a king, she was born blind and quickly shuffled off to a secluded castle in the woods where she lives alone with a small cohort of servants and caretakers who have been instructed to lie to her about both her identity and physical circumstance. Iolanta is not to know that she is the king’s daughter or that she is blind. Everyone around her carefully avoids any mention of light, beauty, or the concept of sight.
Of course, lies can be sensed even when they are impeccably maintained. And Iolanta lets us know in the opera’s opening scene that she is suspicious that something is being kept from her, even though she has no idea what that something might be. (“There is something I’m not allowed to know,” she sings.) Her darkness is total. But as the opera unfolds, we are reminded that truth and light have a way of exposing even the darkest secrets.
The fairy tale plot of Iolanta is, like that of so many great operas, rather ridiculous. Which is exactly why TDO’s highly abstract production provides the perfect lens through which to navigate it. Christian Räth’s minimalistic set and Elaine J. McCarthy’s trippy, kaleidoscopic projections bring a psychological tilt to the performance that enhances its metaphorical depth. McCarthy plays with your perceptions and imagination: the snaking veins of a giant eyeball become the tangled branches of forest trees, Iolanta’s attendants morph into magically twinned dancers, and the story becomes less a silly fairy tale and more a complex contemplation on truth, lies, reality, and perception.
While opera singers are typically fluent in a necessary amount of Italian, French and German, they are not always comfortable with Russian. This explains, at least partially, why Iolanta is rarely performed outside of Russia (the Metropolitan Opera performed it for the first time this season, also using a fairly abstract production). But even on a first or second hearing, it is easy to fall in love with this music, especially the incredibly rich harmonies that rise from the pit. With highly skilled Russian vocalists only a plane ride away from the U.S., we will likely see more Iolantas staged here in the coming years. It helps, of course, that Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous melodies and orchestration are beautiful and catchy.
On Friday night, TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume gave Tchaikovsky’s score a convincing read. Villaume has recorded this music before, and this familiarity likely helped him communicate the piece’s bold themes so effectively and with such a clear grasp of its larger structure and shape. The orchestra did their best to communicate the musical message, but on several occasions poor intonation distracted from artistry. I’ve heard some great playing from this ensemble this season, and so it was disappointing to hear woodwinds and violins fall into some familiar bad habits on several occasions during this performance. Hopefully their already improving sound will continue to tighten with the addition of a new concertmaster next season.
The mostly Russian cast of this production does a fine job both vocally and dramatically. Ekaterina Scherbachenko (Iolanta) has a flexible voice that is equally strong when it simmers and boils with power and when it delicately floats with vulnerability. She quickly captured my attention in the opening scene, as did the stunning mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as one of Iolanta’s attendants (Marta). Along with a beautiful off-stage chorus, these women and their stage-mates made a striking impression in a beautifully choreographed “dance” set against a stark black stage below mirror-images of themselves projected above. Both the imagery and the music in this scene were memorably beautiful.
Sergy Skorokhodov makes for a fine Count Vaudémont (Iolanta’s love interest). He is eager, romantic, and passionate. When he was “on,” his sound was lovely, but he seemed to grow tired towards the end of the third scene and struggled on several occasions as he stretched for the high notes. As Vaudémont’s pal, Robert, Andrei Bondarenko was less convincing dramatically, but he has immense power vocally. There is a scene in which these two square off in what amounts to a Romantic Male Lead sing-off. If there is a weak moment in the opera, it is here. McCarthy’s projections place the two in front of a silky, shadowy suggestion of a nude female. But below the sensual imagery, Vaudémont’s and Bondarenko’s physical movements are uninspired and Tchaikovsky’s music feels arbitrary.
My favorite male cast members on stage were baritone Vladislav Sulimsky as the strangely religious doctor and bass Mikhail Kolelishvili as Iolanta’s father, King René. Both possess incredibly rich voices, and the music Tchaikovsky writes for them is beautiful. The rest of the cast provides these characters with solid dramatic support and lovely singing.
Overall, this is a wholly convincing Iolanta that highlights the work’s strengths. Strong singing, fantastic conducting, and a minimalist set bring Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music to the forefront. Lighting designer Thomas C. Hase, whose visual contributions are equally as important as McCarthy’s projections in creating Iolanta’s stark black and white world, ensure that the metaphorical weight of this fairy tale is fully revealed. With his help, we move with Iolanta out of the darkness and into the blinding light.