Dallas — It is said that many fairy tales have their basis in fact, but enhanced to the fantastical to make a point. So it is with Tchaikovsky’s lush and melody-drenched opera Iolanta, which is receiving a magnificently sung opium dream of a production in the hands of The Dallas Opera, directed by Christian Räth, who also handles scenic design.
The singers, dressed in non-specific sort-of modern clothing, are placed in a different dimension of geometric space, removing the actors from reality and reducing the action to its timeless question of what sparks love and illustrates Matthew Henry’s quote that there are “…none so blind as those who will not see."
The plot concerns Iolanta, daughter of King René, who are both historic figures—but that is where reality ends. In this version, Iolanta is born blind but protected from this knowledge by her manically overprotective father, who shields her from any contact other than some carefully selected attendants. A physician tells the King that he can cure her, even though he examines her while she is sleeping, but only if she wants it. How would this be possible since she doesn’t know she is blind? The King fears failure. A stranger, fortunately a prince, happens upon the hidden garden and the pair fall in love—he with her ethereal beauty and she with his fervent ardor. She discovers through the interaction she is blind but now has a reason to see. All ends happily ever after.
Projection artist Elaine J. McCarthy fills the ample stage at the Winspear Opera House with huge geometric shapes that owe their origin to cubist art (even though these are mostly triangles—trianglist?) Everything is in black and white, which adds a dash of German Expressionism and an approximation of limited sight for us in the audience.
The panels are frequently in motion as they combine and separate to form suggestions of the various scenes. They are on such a large scale that they dwarf the singers, placing them in a galactic space.
Projections add both detail and surreal suggestions on shifting scrims. The otherworldly atmosphere, the canted angles and reducing the world to black and white, is reminiscent of early symbolist films such as Robert Wiene’s 1919 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A huge eye floating in the background, out of the Surrealist movement, speaks of her affliction and says that everything is observed, no matter how hidden.
The cast is uniformly first rate. American singers are learning Russian these days, but the players in this cast are mostly native Russian speakers.
Russians are famous for producing great bass singers and Mikhail Kolelishvili, who portrays Iolanta’s father, King René, is a deeply resonant example. As his daughter, Ekaterina Scherbachenko delivers a voice with some hint of spinto heft. You would have expected a lighter instrument for such a hothouse flower, but this vibrant singing portends of the Iolanta at the end of the opera rather than the one at the start.
Tenor Sergey Skorokhodov portrays her suitor Vaudémont with a virile and sturdy tenor. He portrays the role as slightly clueless, discovering the plot line shortly after we do.
Baritone Andrei Bondarenko plays Robert, Iolanta’s original intended. His grace in stepping aside for his friend, Vaudémont, is the picture of genteel nobility. (The fact that he is in love with someone else not withstanding.)
Iolanta’s companions, who eerily mimic her movements, are attractively sung by Tamara Mumford, Joanna Mongiardo and Lauren McNeese. All three voices are different enough that you can recognize them by their timbre. This is a plus since they look identical.
Much of the accompanied recitatives are mundane and might be more effective if delivered in spoken dialogue, but that would be another opera. There are echoes of his opera Eugene Onegin, such as a tenor aria based on a descending scale. The religious finale feels forced, tacked on for wont of another way to end. However, this is pure Tchaikovsky. The opera was composed at the same time as his Nutcracker ballet, and shares its immediacy and ability to reach inside and move us emotionally on a level of which we are hardly aware.
Music Director Emmanuel Villaume is a champion of the opera, which only reached the Metropolitan Opera this season, and conducts it in Europe, recently releasing a recording of the score. While his preparation is always meticulous and full of details, it is apparent that this score is something special for him. Every motion he makes results in a thoughtful musical event and his communication with the orchestra is complete. They respond splendidly.
On the down side, Villaume is much taller than most conductors and is visible from the waist up. Conductors are usually no more than a bobbling head, but this conductor is almost part of the action. Considering that very little motion takes place on the stage, it is difficult to look past his excellent podium technique.
None of these quibbles detracts from the magical otherworldly experience that The Dallas Opera puts on the stage. Don’t go expecting a tear-jerking opera with betrayals, distraught soprani, dramatic deaths and broken hearts. Instead, bring your inner child. Iolanta is a gentle retelling of an affirming tale with Tchaikovsky’s expressive music propelling the story towards a happy ending.
How rare is that?