Anna Netrebko stars in Iolanta

Tchaikovsky’s Иоланта on CD: it’s a good thing to come prepared to an unfamiliar opera!

OperaMetro strongly recommends Anna Netrebko’s newly released recording of Иоланта on Deutsche Grammophon CD, but also Valery Gergiev’s version on Philips, recorded in 1994, released in 1996...Okay, we’ll call it a draw: you can’t go wrong with either (or both).

Anna Netrebko stars in Tchaikovsky's  Iolanta  under Emmanuel Villaume

Anna Netrebko stars in Tchaikovsky's Iolanta under Emmanuel Villaume

 Иоланта (Iolanta), op.69, Tchaikovsky’s final opera, premiered as a double bill with the ballet Щелкунчик (Nutcracker), op. 71, both of which followed hard on the heels of the opera Пиковая Дама (Queen of Spades), op. 68, and the grand fairy tale ballet Спящая Красавица (Sleeping Beauty), op. 66, and all these just before his last symphony, the deeply moving Nr. 6 (aka Pathetique), op. 74. Though Tchaikovsky is still on the top of his game with Iolanta, sadly it is neglected. Understandable, perhaps: though there is love in Iolanta, even passion, it’s mostly gentle. You’ll hear echoes of his previous operas in the orchestration and vocal lines, but you won’t find the emotional torment that grips either Tatiana in Eugene Onegin or Lisa in Queen of Spades. Probably the main reason is that Iolanta has a happy ending in addition to being short (one act, about 90 minutes running time). But it’s not the kind of bold plot to fill an evening as can, say, an opera like Salome or Elektra, which, true, is also short but either one of these monsters leaves your poor nervous system so overwrought by the end of the evening that you can’t take another minute more.

In Iolanta each character has a solo number worthy of attention. Robert, the Duke of Burgundy, Iolanta’s husband-to-be by an arrangement at birth, extols the glories of his passion for one Mathilde, with whom he’s fallen in love as an adult. It’s a very fine aria for a baritone, certainly the equal of anything you’ll hear in Onegin or Spades (and especially in the hands of the great Dimitri Hvorostovsky on the Philips). Count Vaudémont, a Burgundian knight accompanying Robert, has a briefer solo, but his longer love duet with Iolanta is also pleasing. It and the ‘cure’ by the physician/philosopher Ibn-Hakia set the conditions for Iolanta’s escape from her blindness. The finale is a hymn of praise to God and light.

The new DG release under Emmanuel Villaume, leading the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, is more vital, more urgent, more nuanced than the Philips. It dances, it teases sometimes, the recorded sound overall is more upfront and forward, compared to the Philips. Recordings have come a long way in two decades.

Villaume’s essay of the score is quite lyrical: he lets the voices of the orchestra sing to each other by urging and relaxing when necessary to shape the melodies. His singers are expressive, particularly the King René of Vitalij Kowaljow, the Duke Robert of Alexey Markov, and the Ibn-Hakia of Lucas Meachem. Meachem’s voice conveys a gentle, eternal wisdom far beyond his years. Elegantly soothing, actually.

As they should be, all ears will be on Anna Netrebko, whose recent performances at the Met and around the world signal for her a change of fach. No more Adina or Gilda: bring on Lady Macbeth, Leonora, or Giovanna d’Arco! No more Lyudmila or Louisa (Betrothal in a Monastery) or Natalya Rostova (War and Peace): bring on Tatiana, and now Iolanta! Netrebko’s career has reached that point where her voice has more bottom, more strength, and therefore more volume, but without too much of a loss of the top, if losing some flexibility. The role of Iolanta fits her new sound quite well. Netrebko communicates Iolanta’s big moments in love and in her final discovery of vision and the world of light as well as in her more child-like moments at the opera’s beginning and her tentative meeting with Vaudémont. She often speaks to me like her character, not like an opera singer playing a character. There are some signs of strain, too much of a push at some of the big moments, but on the whole Netrebko is successful, much more so here than on her recent DG release of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco earlier this past fall. Iolanta's new beau here is Sergey Skorokhodov as Count Vaudémont, whose bright, expressive voice is a worthy match for her in the big duet. The more I listen to this recording, the more I like it.   

The Gergiev Iolanta has a stellar cast drawn from the pool of artists at the Mariinski Theater in St. Petersburg, but they also sing often at the Met. Galina Gorchakova sings the title role, Sergei Alexashkin is King René, Dimitri Hvorostovsky is Robert, Gegam Grigorian is Vaudémont, Nikolai Putilin is Ibn-Hakia, and Larissa Diadkova is Martha. These singers freely populate the many excellent recordings of the Russian repertory released by Philips during the 90s and later.

If there are drawbacks to this Philips recording it’s the more recessed sound field and the mannered beauty of it all. Gergiev, who conducts the premiere production of Iolanta at the Met this winter (2015), leads a well-paced, detailed reading of Tchaikovsky’s score that, compared to the new DG release, is more measured. Gorchakova’s creamy soprano sails over the orchestra without appreciable strain. Hers is a relatively big voice (she also recorded Verdi’s Leonora in the original St. Petersburg La Forza del Destino for Philips and, as Tatiana, premiered the previous production of Eugene Onegin at the Met). Grigorian’s voice, though on the nasal side, is winningly sweet; Hvorostovsky is a pleasure to listen to throughout. The more I listen to this recording, the more I like it.

I know I'm not really being much help here. Call it a draw. How many recordings of Iolanta can one have?

I know the old Melodiya Iolanta starring Tamara Sorokina, Vladimir Atlantov, Yuri Mazurok, and Yevgeny Nesterenko, conducted by Mark Ermler is available on CD. This too is a compelling performance, but my LPs are just fine. In the spring of 1982 Rostropovich conducted his wife Galina Vishnevskaya in Iolanta in concert @ Carnegie Hall with Nicolai Gedda and Benjamin Luxon. It was my first exposure to the opera. Their recording was originally released on Erato as I recall. A few other recordings of Iolanta are floating around. How much room on your shelf is there?

As discovering a new opera goes, Iolanta is a diamond in the rough, especially for Tchaikovsky fans. Enjoy!