Evening of one-act opera: The Nutcracker Suite, Iolanta
Premiere of this production: 28 Oct 2015
The performance has 1 intermission
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky after “King René’s Daughter” by Heinrich Hertz
Iolanta plus Nutcracker
Iolanta and Nutcracker were commissioned from Tchaikovsky by the Mariinsky Theatre management. It is thought that the idea of uniting the one act opera and two act ballet into a single production to be shown on the same evening originated with the then director of the Imperial Theatres Ivan Vsevolozhsky.
In July 1891 Tchaikovsky began composing the music for Iolanta, starting off with the Iolanta and Vaudemont duet. He was full of enthusiasm. The composer wrote to his brother Modest: "I'm in love more than ever with the subject of Iolanta, and your libretto is quite perfect… Oh yes, I will write an opera such that the audiences will weep". By September the music to all intents and purposes was completed and by December – so was the orchestration.
The première of Iolanta (and of the ballet Nutcracker) took place at the Mariinsky Theatre on 6 December 1892. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatoly: "The opera and ballet had great success yesterday. The opera in particular was to everyone's liking. The night before we had a rehearsal with the Emperor. He was enraptured, called me to the box and uttered a mass of sympathetic words. Both were staged magnificently, and the ballet was even too magnificent: the eyes tire of such sumptuousness".
A year later, on 11 November 1893, Iolanta was given its first performance at the Bolshoi Theatre. In all there have been six productions of Iolanta at the Bolshoi (in 1893, 1899, 1917, 1940, 1974 and 1997).
In 2015 Iolanta was presented for the first time at the Bolshoi Theatre together with its ‘lost twin’ Nutcracker though, true, in the form of the Symphonic Suite rather than the two-act ballet. But, for all that, Tchaikovsky and Vsevolozhsky’s idea of uniting the two works into a single production, rather than simply presenting them as a double bill on the same evening, was realized.
The production is by Sergey Zhenovach, the artistic director of The Theatre Art Studio, and an acknowledged maître of giving major works of literature a new lease of life on stage. Working with him on the production were his permanent co-authors: scenographer Alexander Borovsky and lighting designer Damir Ismagilov.
It will doubtless come as quite a surprise when, to start off with, the orchestra plays the suite with curtain down, after which the performance itself - Iolanta - gets underway! The task which faced us was to think up one story, one composition. And it even seems to me now that without Nutcracker, it would have been less interesting. Even before the events in the opera start to unfold, the music of the Nutcracker Suite shows us Iolanta’s inner world. This incredibly poetical, fairy-tale-like suite is our heroine’s inner music.
The story is indeed very poetical. The first thing one has to avoid at all costs in Iolanta is a homespun, naturalistic interpretation. As soon as the action begins to acquire a homespun character, this subtle, fragile, naïve opera simply disintegrates. It was therefore vital that our production be poetical. Our aim was to locate a real, human story through these poetic images: what is light, what is darkness, what is blindness and the recovery of sight, what are these “two worlds of the flesh and of the spirit”? We had above all to find a figurative, spatial expression of the poetic language of the opera. To create a world of darkness and a world of light.
Iolanta is a very pure, naïve, radiant opera, but by no means as simple as it seems. In terms of character, I would compare it to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. It is an imaginary tale with philosophical meaning, and a serious subtext. And its philosophical content today is very distinct and clear.
Iolanta, the blind daughter of the King of Provence, is telling her nurse, Martha, that she is full of some unknown longing. Iolanta's friends, Brigitte and Laura, try to cheer her up by singing songs and bringing her flowers. Martha also tries to comfort Iolanta by singing her favorite lullaby. This sends Iolanta to sleep.
Enter Alméric, King René's sword-bearer. He informs the castle porter, Bertrand, that very soon the King will be arriving with a famous Physician who, it is hoped, will cure Iolanta's blindness. The trumpets sound, announcing the arrival of the King. King René enters accompanied by the Moorish Physician, Ibn-Hakia. The King explains that Iolanta has been betrothed from infancy to Robert, Duke of Burgundy, and is soon to marry him, but the Duke does not know that his future wife is blind. Indeed, Iolanta herself is totally unaware of her misfortune. Iolanta has been brought up by her father in this remote castle. He surrounded her with loyal retainers and forbade them on pain of death to tell her the truth. Ibn-Hakia says that the only hope for Iolanta is to inform her of her disability and then, so long as she passionately wishes to recover her sight, she will do so. King René is full of doubts and fear for his daughter's future.
Robert, Duke of Burgundy, and his friend Count Vaudémont, appear. They are impressed to find a beautiful garden in such a wild, remote spot. They are, however, puzzled to see a notice which threatens with death anyone entering it without permission. Robert is downhearted for he is soon to be united in matrimony with some Iolanta whom he has never met, while his heart already belongs to another.
A girl appears on the terrace. Vaudémont is struck by her beauty. Hearing unfamiliar voices, the girl, who is in fact Iolanta, suggests to the strangers that they rest under the shade of the trees and hurries off to fetch them some wine. Robert does not trust the stranger and decides to leave. Vaudémont enchanted by Iolanta's beauty and stays behind. When Iolanta returns he tells her of the great impression she has made on him and asks her to pick him a red rose in memory of their meeting. Iolanta hands him a rose, but it is a white one. Vaudémont repeats his request and again he is given a white rose. He begins to suspect something is wrong with the girl. To make sure, he picks a bunch of roses and asks Iolanta to tell him how many flowers there are in the bunch. Iolanta explains that to count them she needs to touch each flower. Vaudémont realizes that Iolanta is blind and tells her so. He starts to describe to her the wonders of God's world which she is destined never to see, but Iolanta argues that eyesight is not necessary to appreciate the beauty of the world.
Voices are heard: the King enters, followed by Physician Ibn-Hakia and servants. René is horrified when he learns that Vaudémont has told Iolanta of her disability and finally suggests that she should try Ibn-Hakia's course of treatment. Iolanta remains indifferent to the idea which makes the Physician lose all hope. Noticing that Iolanta is very much taken by Vaudémont, King René tells Vaudémont that he will be executed unless his daughter recovers her sight. Iolanta then begs the Physician to cure her.
A fanfare of trumpets announces the arrival of the Duke of Burgundy who, with a group of armed knights, is hurrying to the rescue of his friend. Robert is amazed to see King René. Vaudémont confesses to Robert that he is in love with Iolanta, the latter’s betrothed, and asks him to tell the King that he, Robert, has given his heart to someone else. René consents to the marriage of Iolanta and Count Vaudémont. Shouts of joy are heard, and Iolanta, who has recovered her sight, appears at the castle door. Overjoyed, King René hurries to embrace his daughter and then leads Vaudémont up to her. Everyone gives passionate thanks to God for her recovery.
1 Teatralnaya ploschad (1 Theatre Square), Moscow, Russia
4/2 Teatralnaya ploschad (4/2 Theatre Square), Moscow, Russia