Nutcracker & Iolanta

The Nutcracker, Op.71 (excerpts)
Iolanta, Op.69 [Concert performance; sung in Russian]

Iolanta – Nuccia Focile
Brigitta – Elizabeth Donovan
Laura – Camilla Roberts
Martha – Clare Shearer
Vaudémont – Peter Hoare
King René – Ilya Bannik
Robert – Vladimir Moroz
Ebn-Hakia – Pavel Baransky
Bertrand – David Soar
Alméric – Ian Yemm

Chorus of Welsh National Opera

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Vassily Sinaisky

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The pairing of Tchaikovsky’s final opera “Iolanta” with his final ballet “The Nutcracker”, as heard in St Petersburg on 18 December 1892 – and in that order – made for one of the more historically significant double-bills in music. It was instructive to feature a variant of this as the programme for this Prom.

Rather than opt for the customary suite from The Nutcracker, Vassily Sinaisky presented his own selection from both acts, which made for an effective half-hour breviary. Thus the winsome ‘Overture’ was followed by most of the climactic sequence from Act One – the departure of the Guests leading into the charged evocation of night, the ensuing battle, and the majestic transformation through to the pine forest; all dispatched with an élan which suggested the Welsh National Opera Orchestra was enjoying its time in the spotlight. A stealthy ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’ preceded a breezy ‘Trepak’ and wistful ‘Dance of the Mirlitons’, before the high drama and surging emotion of the ‘Pas de deux’ brought about a fitting apotheosis.

All of which set the scene adroitly for “Iolanta”. This lyric one-act opera has never been rated among the composer’s finest stage-works, and there is a frequent sense of Tchaikovsky setting his brother Modest’s workaday libretto (hardly an isolated problem in nineteenth-century opera!) as a succession of neatly dovetailed set-pieces which together amount to a coherent but hardly incandescent whole. Yet though the opera’s central thesis – that sight can only be given to one with the requisite ‘inner vision’ – hardly chimes with the social or moral outlook of our time, it invites an emotive response such as Tchaikovsky was well equipped to provide, and which is channelled effectively through the cumulative intensity of the piece. To this end, musical motifs are freely employed which ensures them memorability even when – as in much of the opera’s first half – melodic invention is well below par. The love duet, however, is one of Tchaikovsky’s most artfully constructed – and if the finale is more efficient than inspired, it also shows a mastery with which he is too rarely credited.

The performance was at its strongest where it needed to be. Nuccia Focile had the slightly remote radiance ideal for a princess whose life has been spent in a state of beatific uncomprehending – only to be confronted by the twin terrors of love and reality in around 90 minutes. Without losing the role’s underlying serenity, she grew in vocal presence as the opera reached its denouement – her benevolence the key to the drama’s affirmative outcome. As Vaudémont, Peter Hoare complemented her ideally – quite upstaging (as he needs to) the more conventionally heroic Robert, vividly portrayed by Vladimir Moroz, in their twin arias (Vaudémont’s being one of the more necessary appendices in opera) and spurring Iolanta on to greater rapture in their duet.

King René was securely if rather ponderously taken by Ilya Bannik, evincing not quite the necessary humanity through the outward authority, while Pavel Baransky made the most of physician Ebn-Hakia’s harmonically exotic characterisation in music more usually associated with Rimsky-Korsakov (one reason, perhaps, why the latter was so hostile to the opera). Clare Shearer’s warm-toned Martha was the pick of the familial triumvirate shielding the princess from the outside world, and the smaller roles were never less than adeptly taken.

WNO’s Chorus sang with commitment, and Sinaisky ensured a laudable response from the orchestra – his handling of the piquant woodwind introduction indicative of a concern for detail that only rarely faltered in some of the most resourceful instrumental writing to be found in any Tchaikovsky opera. If “Iolanta” will never enjoy the appeal of its ballet counterpart, it is equally far from the artistic tailing-off that has long been its due.

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