Opera Reviews
25 June 2024
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An engaging performance

by Catriona Graham
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta
Scottish Opera
October 2017

Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, a fable of a princess, brought up in ignorance of her blindness, can be taken at face value, or as an allegory of sexual awakening, but it could also mean so much more.

Her father, King René of Provence, has brought the Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia in the hope there is a cure for her blindness. The doctor sets out the conundrum; before we can see, we need the concept of vision in our immortal souls. Further, he says that Iolanta can only be cured if she wants to be cured.

Meanwhile, Modest Tchaikovsky’s libretto presents us with a barihunk and weedy tenor straight from Central Casting. Robert, Duke of Burgundy, though betrothed to Iolanta, is in love with Mathilde, who makes his blood redder and intoxicates him like wine. His sidekick Vaudémont yearns for a chaste angel, gentle and graceful, innocent, purer than lily-of-the-valley … The pair having entered a gate with a death warning on it, Robert goes for reinforcements, leaving Vaudémont to converse with Iolanta - his dream come true.

Iolanta inadvertently reveals her blindness when she hands Vaudémont a white rose after he asks her for a red one – and repeats the mistake. She tells him she was given eyes to weep, she asks ‘What is light?’ When he praises light as the ‘first-born of Creation’, she asks can you see the thunder, or the scent of a flower, or a voice – when you think about it, quite apposite questions for music theatre.

Her father arrives with the doctor, and points out that Vaudémont saw the warning and now must die. Then he thinks of a cunning plan; if his daughter gets her sight, Vaudémont will live. Now Iolanta wants to be cured, to save Vaudémont’s life. The opera ends with a hymn of praise.

In Scottish Opera’s concert performance, the singing is superb. Five of the singers are native speakers of Russian and their ease with the language shows. The voice of Alexei Tanovitski (René) is dark like a creamy chocolate truffle, though occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra. Ashley Holland’s Ibn-Hakia is warmly sympathetic while Alexey Gusev’s Robert is impressive and one to watch as a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist. As Marta, Anne-Marie Owens is tender care and concern for her charge; her husband Bertrand (James Platt), the doorkeeper, Aled Hall as René’s messenger, and Iolanta’s friends (Nadine Livingston and Laura Zigmantaite) complete the ensemble. The chorus joins in for that final glorious hymn – a thrilling sound which fills the auditorium.

Gulnara Shafingullina is excellent as Iolanta, feeling her way across the stage, not quite sure in which direction to sing, vulnerable but brave.  Alexey Dolgov’s emotional range as Vaudémont – for example exasperation followed by sudden understanding over the roses – shows his own growth since he sang of his fantasy woman.

Stuart Stratford conducting drew some very nice playing from the orchestra and Jack Furness (director) have done well to present this less well-known work in such an engaging performance.

Text © Catriona Graham
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