In a recent interview, TDO’s chorus master Alexander Rom noted that it is done frequently elsewhere in the world.
“Iolanta is very pretty” Rom says. “It is Tchaikovsky’s last opera. He was at the height of his creative abilities, although he didn’t think so. It was premiered on the same program as his Nutcracker ballet, which is performed everywhere. I think that some people don’t have the courage to explore. There are so many operas done in Europe, even the rare Russian operas are done there, but not here.”
“In my time, [Iolanta] was a part of the standard repertoire,” he adds.
“My time” for Rom means his childhood and conservatory training in Russia. He is native of Kharkov, Ukraine, and graduated with a master’s degree from the Leningrad Conservatory of Music, now named The N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov St. Petersburg State Conservatory, with a master’s degree in choral conducting. His primary teacher was Avenir Mikhailov, who held the post of Music Director of the St. Petersburg Singing Cappella, which was founded by Peter the Great as the first professional chorus in Russia.
But back to Iolanta: The opera is a fairy tale of sorts set in Medieval France. The story centers around a young woman named Iolanta, a royal princess who is adored and protected by her father. She has been blind as far back as she can remember, but her father, the king, decreed that she was not to know that this wasn’t the natural state for everyone else. To shield her from this knowledge, he keeps her isolated and closely watched. One day, a young man enters her private garden and everything changes for her. At this point, Iolanta becomes a love story.
“It is an operatic love story that ends happily,” said Rom.
Iolanta is a 90-minute one act, performed without an intermission. This is a similar format to Strauss’ Salome, although it is hard to imagine two operas that are more different in tone and subject matter.
“You have to wonder what attracted Tchaikovsky to this subject,” Rom says. “He had just finished Pique Dame and The Nutcracker and was at the top of his game. He criticized Wagner for writing operas about unreal characters—then he wrote this fairy tale.”
Rom sees some parallels to Tchaikovsky’s own life. The composer was a sensitive child who was easily overcome with emotions, constantly bursting into tears. His loving and close-knit family lived in the idyllic and bucolic countryside and he had a wonderful Nanny. He was pampered and protected from the real world—for a while.
“All he knew was love and harmony,” says Rom. “All this ended when he was sent away to a boarding school at the age of 10. People there were rude, cruel and indifferent. Then, his mother died. Altogether his situation was devastating and he had a major breakdown. He went from heaven to hell. In many ways, you have to wonder if he didn’t see himself as he was kept blind in the garden and protected from a cruel reality.”
Of course, the composer had a secret that he had to conceal as well, which only added to his stress. He was gay in an era of great repression.
“Even right now, we see Russia returning that prejudice into force of law,” says Rom. But for him it was something different. Gay or straight, it wouldn’t have mattered so much. He was not able to face the real world. Being gay just made the unbearable impossible. Love brings a happy ending in Iolanta, something the tortured composer desired so fiercely. It is Tchaikovsky’s most philosophical opera on the most personal level.”
But Iolanta’s story of hope could not stop the composer’s descent into depression. The sixth symphony, one of the most gloriously depressing works ever written, came two years later. Shortly after conducting the premiere of that symphony, the composer was dead at the age of 53, some think by his own hand.
“He could never find a pillow where to put his poor head,” says Rom.
But all of that was two years after Iolanta premiered.
The Dallas Opera production stars Russian soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko in the title role. Iolanta’s love interest, Count Vaudémont, will be performed by the Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov. Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko will appear as Robert, the Duke of Burgundy, and baritone Vladislav Sulimsky from Belarus who will portray the role of the Moorish physician. Both are making their American debuts.
Bass Mikhail Kolelishvili, who impressed in TDO’s production of Boris Godunov will sing the role of King René, Iolanta’s father. Others in the cast include tenor Andrew Bidlack (who we saw in Everest, Die tote Stadt and The Lighthouse), and bass Jordan Bisch (who appeared here in Lucia di Lammermoor). Soprano Joanna Mongiardo and mezzo-soprani Lauren McNeese and Tamara Mumford complete the principal cast.
The German director Christian Räth, who delivered a sensational Tristan and Isolde a few years ago, returns to stage Iolanta. Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, who recently released a critically acclaimed recording of the opera with Anna Netrebko, will be on the podium.
Scenic design is also by Räth, with costume design by Susan Cox, lighting design by Thomas C. Hase and projections by Elaine J. McCarthy.
This gentle love story is awash in beautiful music and it takes the stage at the Winspear Opera House on April 10 at 7:30 p.m. in the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Additional performances are Sunday, April 12 at 2:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, April 18 at 7:30 p.m.