It’s wonderful to see Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta finally receiving its due. Peter Sellars’s quirky staging appeared at Aix-en-Provence this summer and the Metropolitan Opera recently mounted its first production, starring Anna Netrebko, who recorded the role for DG in 2012. Dmitri Tcherniakov brings Iolanta to Paris next year, paired with The Nutcracker – its original partner at its St Petersburg premiere in 1892. Now there’s a new recording to consider. Like DG’s, it is a concert recording. It proves, in many ways, even more compelling.
Tchaikovsky’s fairy-tale about a blind princess who is kept ‘in the dark’ about her condition has a sentimental, mawkish quality, yet the music never fails to move me, right from the luscious opening scene where string quartet and harp serenade Iolanta and her entourage. The Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra have recorded a very fine Tchaikovsky symphony cycle with Kitaenko and they are on excellent form, satisfying and weighty. Oehms has caught a much more realistic balance than DG, where voices were closely miked in a claustrophobic halo. A black mark for Oehms, though, for not including a libretto in their booklet, although there is a full track-by-track synopsis.
Leading the cast is the excellent young Russian Olesya Golovneva as Iolanta. Her roles explore the lighter end of the scale – Queen of the Night, Gilda, Zerbinetta – but she also covers lyric repertoire such as Tatyana. As anticipated from this CV, she floats high notes beautifully and her arioso ‘Otchego eto prezhde ne znala’ (Why, until now, have I not shed tears?) is full of tender fragility. As a young innocent, Golovneva’s Iolanta is preferable to the fuller, darker soprano of Netrebko, who arguably took it into her repertory a fraction too late.
Alexander Vinogradov’s soft-grained bass is rock-solid and on magnificent form as Iolanta’s father, the protective King René, proving far stronger than the woolly Vitalij Kowaljow for DG. Vladislav Sulimsky, as the Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia, possesses a powerful baritone, making the most of his aria, with its oriental inflections.
Intruding into the secret garden come Robert, Duke of Burgundy, betrothed to Iolanta (although in love with another), and his friend Vaudémont. In a coup of luxury casting, considering the role’s brevity, Andrei Bondarenko makes for a resplendent Robert, easily the equal of Dmitri Hvorostovsky on Valery Gergiev’s Philips recording.
Tenor Dmytro Popov is in mellifluous, heady voice as Vaudémont. Discovering Iolanta asleep in the garden, Vaudémont falls in love with her and discovers her blindness through her inability to distinguish between white and red roses. Ther duet is the crux of the opera and Popov and Golovneva are incredibly touching, with Kitaenko unleashing a tremendous orchestral outpouring at the end. Most of the smaller roles are well taken, apart from the clotted mezzo singing Martha, with a vibrant contribution from the chorus of Cologne Opera in the closing hymn of praise after Ibn-Hakia works his miracle and cures Iolanta. A top-drawer recording of an increasingly significant opera.