Iolanta was a Met Opera premier, although the opera was first performed in 1892 in St. Petersburg. This was Tchaikovsky’s last opera, with a libretto written by Modest Tchaikovsky, and is based on the Danish play Kong Renés Datter (King René's Daughter) by Henrik Hertz. Iolanta (Anna Netrebko), the only daughter of King Rene of Provence, was born blind, however, she does no know this due to the King’s decree. He has had her raised in isolation, in a beautiful home in the mountains, with a loving and caring staff who have been forbidden on pain of death to speak to her of anything pertaining to vision or light. As the opera opens, Iolanta, grown to womanhood, is overcome with sadness, feeling that she is missing something for which she has no name. She asks her servants why they love her, when she can give them nothing in return. Her nurses reply that her love is sufficient, but she is not satisfied by the answer.
The King (Ilya Bannik) arrives, accompanied by “Moorish” physician, Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Azizov), whom he hopes can cure Iolanta of her blindness before her pending marriage to Robert, Duke of Burgundy. However, he disagrees with the doctor’s proposed course of treatment. Ibn-Hakia believes that the spirit must take part in the healing, and that, if Iolanta does not know she is blind, she cannot aid in her healing, as she must want to be cured for the treatment to be effective. The King refuses. The doctor says he will give the King time to reconsider.
Enter Robert (Aleksei Markov), and his friend, Vaudemont (Piotr Beczala), a wealthy Count, enter. They have become lost while hiking, and, with noblemen’s insouciance, have seen but ignored the “keep out, on pain of death” warnings posted by Rene. Robert confesses that he is not looking forward to his contracted marriage to Iolanta, whom he has never met, because he loves the vivacious and lusty Matilda. Vaudemont allows that he prefers the pure and virginal type. Curious about the lonely house, they peer in, and Vaudemont is instantly smitten by Iolanta’s youthful beauty. Robert thinks his friend has been bewitched, and goes for help.
Vaudemont enters the house, and speaks to Iolanta. She is charmed and pleased to meet a stranger. In the affecting scene that follows, Vaudemont discovers that she cannot see. When she is puzzled by his words, he explains that light is the first of nature’s gifts to Creation, without which its glory cannot be comprehended. Iolanta refutes him, saying that she can hear the glory of Creation in the song of the birds, the sound of the stream—and in his voice.
The King and servants return and are appalled at what has happened. Ibn-Hakia argues that this is a good thing, since now her cure is possible. The King replies that the doctor may attempt the cure, but if Iolanta does not gain her sight, Vaudemont will be put to death. Iolanta vows that she will do everything she can to see.
While the doctor is working, Rene confesses to Vaudemont that he won’t be killed, the King only wanted to give his daughter incentive. Vaudemont announces his rank, and offers for Iolanta’s hand, whether she is cured or not. Rene replies that he is King of Provence, and that his daughter is already promised.
Enter Robert with his rescue party. He recognizes Rene. At Vaudemont’s urging, Robert asks to be released from his betrothal to Iolanta, which Rene grants, awarding her hand instead to Vaudemont.
Iolante’s old servant enters, weeping. The men are alarmed, fearing the experiment has failed, but he answers that he was so moved by Iolanta’s faith and dedication, that he could not remain. Then, Iolanta’s women appear, joyously announcing that she can see!
At first, Iolanta is disoriented and frightened by her new vision, but speedily adjusts upon recognizing her father and Vaudemont by their voices. The opera ends with a joyous chorus.
The music by Tchaikovsky is gorgeous, and all the parts very well sung, under the direction of Maestro Valery Gergiev. Costuming was kind of a vague early Twentieth-Century, but worked well for the mostly timeless libretto. The simple set was augmented by effective projections. Acting was generally good, although I was unsatisfied by Ms. Netrebko’s physical portrayal of a woman blind from birth. I blame this on the stage director, Mariusz Trelinski, though, since everything else in the performance was spot on.
Light is also a vital theme in Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” and very much so in this fully staged version. Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) brings home his new bride, Judith (Nadja Michael), and they almost at once fall into a battle of wills as Judith, appalled by the darkness, badgers Bluebeard for the keys to the castle doors, in order to admit light and air. Bluebeard grudgingly complies, hoping to discourage her by first showing her his bloody torture chamber, and equally bloody armory. What is portrayed is the battle of two obsessions: Judith believes that she can banish the darkness that haunts Bluebeard, while Bluebeard hopes that if Judith will only kiss him, ask no questions, and leave the doors closed, everything will be all right.
When Judith is undaunted by the first two rooms, Bluebeard more willingly surrenders the keys to his treasury, garden, and domain, seeming to be pleased by the lightness that has pervaded his castle. But Judith presses on, opening the sixth door, the “sea of tears”, and the seventh. In this version, we see the grounds of Bluebeard’s castle, haunted by the spectres of his prior wives. “They are still alive!” Judith cries, but in denial. The foreground we see an opened, shallow grave. A body, with Judith’s blonde hair, face turned away, and wearing the green dress she arrived in, lies partly in and partly out of the grave. As Judith takes her place among the ghosts, Bluebeard lies down in the grave and tenderly kisses the body, the first kiss we have seen him actually give. As the lights die, he sings that now, it shall always be midnight.
Bartok’s music is powerful, dire, and satisfying. Both Mr. Petrenko and Ms. Michael sang with passion, holding nothing back, as was required in such a deeply psychosexual production. (Given the constant struggle for dominance between Bluebeard and Judith, both Georgie and I came up with the subtitle “Fifty Shades of Blue.” Fitting, since Bluebeard is the creature of which “Christian Gray” is merely a pale shadow--.) Again, projections added to the eerie atmosphere, while paralleling those used in “Iolanta.” Scene shifts that were covered by falling petals in “Iolanta,” were in “Bluebeard” masked by drifting ashes or what might have been scraps of burned paper.
With the journey from darkness into light, In “Iolanta,” and from light back to darkness in “Bluebeard’s Castle,” it was a thrilling, if sometimes harrowing, night at the opera.
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