Tchaikovsky's Theatrical Swan Song
To speak of Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Iolanta, as a rarity is no longer really true, so far this year it has received a South African premiere as well as a staging at Holland Park Opera, last year the Royal Academy of Music staged it and in 2005 Welsh National Opera gave it three concert performances, including an outing at the Proms. However, it is a work that has an elusive profile, and has languished for many years in the shadow of the extraordinary procession of large-scale masterpieces that crowd Tchaikovsky’s last years.
Iolanta was commissioned by Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835-1909), director of the Imperial Theatres in Russia from 1881-98 as the opera half of a double-bill that also included The Nutcracker. Vsevolozhsky was a huge supporter of Tchaikovsky, and had been instrumental in promoting and producing all of Tchaikovsky’s later operas and ballets. This novel double-bill was not particularly successful, proving too long. The opera garnered the best reviews; The Nutcracker was criticized for its flimsy plot, transparently over-compensated by excessive spectacle. In recent years, only Opera North has risen to the challenge of presenting both works in a single evening, for the works centennial in 1992. The opera allowed for a reunion of the talents that had made Tchaikovsky’s previous opera, The Queen of Spades, such a colossal success: Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest was again the librettist, and Medea and Nikolai Figner (the Alagna’s – or Netrebko/ Schrott’s of their day) who had triumphed as Lisa and Herman in the earlier opera, starred in the leading roles, Iolanta and Vaudemont.
Thus this oddly conceived mixed-bill brought Tchaikovsky’s stage career to a slightly muted conclusion, though at the time of his death, Tchaikovsky was intending to revise Swan Lake, and the nationalist historic grand opera from 1874, Oprichnik, and was also engaged in finding subject matter for a new opera from sources as varied as Indian mythology and George Eliot. Whereas initially The Nutcracker, apart from the orchestral suite, disappeared, Iolanta was regularly performed, and Tchaikovsky attended a production in Hamburg, August 1893, during his last trip abroad, conducted by Gustav Mahler.
The opera is based on a play, King René’s Daughter (1845) by Henrik Herz (1797-1870), a Danish poet who was highly popular and translated throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. Tchaikovsky had witnessed a production at the Maly Theatre and immediately noted its promise as an operatic subject. In the event, though, possibly because he over-committed himself to such a demanding schedule while touring Europe and traveling to the USA for the opening of the Carnegie Hall, he resented that gestation of the opera was crowded out by work on the ballet, whose scenario he found wanting, and a letter to his brother Modest reflects a panic that his creativity ‘turned into feverish nightmares’. Once the premiere was postponed to the following season, he commenced composition in a more positive frame of mind with the large scale love duet, though soon doubts surfaced, as he found the scene uncomfortably reminiscent of a similarly extended transformative duet from his 1887 opera, The Enchantress, one of his strangest and least-known works, which had flopped most painfully.
Iolanta has a much more relaxed, lyrical aspect than both his previous operas, reflected in its subject matter that some commentators have found cloying, dated and sentimental. The tale of a blind heroine whose handicap is hidden from her so she thinks herself normal has been called improbable, and the radiant happy ending seems to belong more naturally to the never-never world of the late ballets. But this is to underestimate Iolanta’s own special sound world and dramatic logic – it unerringly charts a progression from blackness to dazzling light, and the heroine’s plight evidently engaged Tchaikovsky emotionally, as he pens a portrait of psychological and allegorical interest, which results in music of a heartfelt lyricism, an intriguing contrast to the far more extrovert, sometime expressionist emotional temperature of his last large scale works, The Queen of Spades, The Voyevoda, The Nutcracker and the 6th symphony.
Tchaikovsky’s great contemporary Rimsky-Korsakov was remarkably ungenerous about the opera, criticizing the orchestration in his memoirs for being ‘composed upside-down: music suitable for strings had been given to woodwind, and vice-versa … the introduction, for instance, scored for some unknown reason for wind alone’.
While this is possibly sour grapes – Rimsky’s 1892 opera-ballet Mlada had displeased both Tsar and public, and Tchaikovsky was favoured in imperial circles – it seems that Rimsky has missed the point: the wind-only introduction, with its black, tormented harmonies prophetic of the Pathetique symphony, is a most potent musical metaphor for the heroine’s blindness and incomplete perception. Iolanta, though mortal, has much in common with the supernatural heroines in Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, who, like her, are prevented from relating to the real world. The Snow Maiden, whose desire to love results in her melting away, Pannochka in May Night – a disembodied mermaid, and the murdered Princess Mlada, who can only protect her fiancée from beyond the grave are closer to the fey Iolanta than the real flesh and blood heroines: Tatyana, Lisa, Maria in Mazeppa, whom Tchaikovsky portrayed with such passion and perception in his earlier operas.
The action takes place in the garden of King Rene’s palace, in fifteenth century Provence. After the stark wind introduction, the curtain rises, with a striking musical contrast; a gentle string threnody, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Rococo period, that evokes perfectly Iolanta’s sheltered, cloistered existence. Iolanta tells her nurse, Martha that she is depressed and cannot tell why. Iolanta’s friends, Brigitte and Laura attempt to cheer her up by bringing flowers and singing songs. Martha sings Iolanta her favourite lullaby, which sends Iolanta to sleep, and she is carried into the castle by retainers.
Martial fanfares prelude the appearance of King Rene’s swordbearer, Almeric, who tells the castle doorman, Bertrand, of the imminent arrival of the king with a famous doctor who, it is hoped, will cure Iolanta of her blindness. Further trumpets announce King Rene’s arrival, accompanied by Ibn-Hakia, a Moorish physician. We learn that Iolanta was betrothed at birth to Robert, Duke of Burgundy, but the Duke is unaware that his intended is blind. Worse, Iolanta herself is unaware of her plight, having been raised in this remote castle by loyal retainers, who are commanded, on pain of death, not to reveal the truth. Ibn-Hakia, in a sinuous aria, a rare example of orientalism in Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, says that the only cure is to inform Iolanta of her blindness. If she passionately longs to regain her sight, then she will do so. King Rene, anxious at what this sudden revelation will do for his daughter, retires to the castle with the doctor.
Robert, Duke of Burgundy, and his friend, Count Vaudemont appear, surprised to find a well kept garden in such a remote place, and are intrigued by a notice that threatens death to anyone who enters without permission. Robert, in what is maybe the opera’s most celebrated aria, sings the praises of his true love, Matilda, though he is cast-down at the thought of having to honour his arranged marriage to Iolanta, whom he has never met. Iolanta appears, intrigued by voices she does not recognize, invites the strangers to rest in the shade, while she fetches refreshments. Robert decides not to wait, but Vaudemont is struck by Iolanta’s beauty and remains behind.
When Iolanta returns, he asks her to pluck a red rose in memory of their meeting. She picks a white rose. He repeats the request, but again she picks a white one. Vaudemont picks a bunch of roses and asks her to count them, but she asks him to hand them to her, so she can do so. He realizes she is blind, confusing and scaring her, and revealing to her the true nature of her condition. In an irresistibly passionate outburst, whose melody follows the contours of the motto of the 5th symphony (and a celebrated trio from Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar) he rhapsodizes over the beauties of God’s creation that Iolanta cannot see.
The court enters, and King Rene is horrified to find Iolanta with a stranger and crestfallen to learn that she now knows she is blind. The King suggests to his daughter that she should try the treatment prescribed by Ibn-Hakia, but she is unenthusiastic, preferring to remain as she is. Ibn-Hakia is pessimistic about the outcome of his operation. King Rene, noticing that Iolanta is very smitten by Vaudemont, tells the Count that he will be executed unless his daughter can be made to see. Iolanta, in love with Vaudemont, begs Ibn-Hakia to cure her, and goes with him into the castle.
Trumpets announce the return of Robert, Duke of Burgundy, who, with a group of knights is set on rescuing his friend. He is surprised to see King Rene. Vaudemont confesses his love of Iolanta to Robert, and asks his friend to tell the King the truth – that he, Robert, has fallen in love with someone else and wishes to be released from his engagement. Rene consents, and allows the marriage of Iolanta and Vaudemont.
Excited voices are heard: the operation has been a success. Iolanta, supported by her friends is dazzled by the beauties of the world, expertly illustrated by Tchaikovsky’s diamond-bright orchestration, featuring banks of string harmonics, and the vertigo she feels with plunging whole-tone scales. King Rene embraces his daughter and presents Vaudemont to her. Iolanta, on her knees, leads a huge choral ensemble, thanking God for her recovery.
© Julian Grant 2008. An article for the REVEALING TCHAIKOVSKY Festival at London's South Bank - November 2008