Magazine article The Spectator

Discreet Charm

Magazine article The Spectator

Discreet Charm

Article excerpt

Iolanta Proms Welsh National Opera gave three concert performances of Tchaikovsky's last opera Iolanta in the latter part of last season, and brought it to the Proms last week, in a performance of great conviction and assurance. Whether that, or anything, is going to help this neglected work to gain the attention it deserves remains an open question. The two big things counting against it are that it is 95 minutes long, and impossible to insert an interval into; and that it is not quite in the front rank of Tchaikovsky's output, though it has no dull patches and is never less than interesting.

The first factor may be the more damaging. Originally Iolanta was paired with The Nutcracker, but it is hard to imagine any company nowadays being inclined or financially able to put them on together, and they would add up to a very long evening. But Iolanta is not quite meaty enough to stand alone, for all its charms.

Perhaps it is condemned to be a CD or DVD opera, not the worst fate.

The idea of Iolanta, that a princess should be brought up in ignorance of the fact that she is blind, and that the curing of her blindness should be effected by, or at least closely connected with, her falling in love, is a brilliant one -- though, since it leads to a happy ending, it was obviously going to be troublesome for Tchaikovsky.

The composer's brother Modeste adapted it from a play that had taken Tchaikovsky's fancy, and the result is in part delightful and touching, in part heavy-handed and prosaic.

Elaborate explanations of things that no one wants explained punctuate the action, and there is too much conscientious filling in of local colour and detail, something that one finds in one Tchaikovsky opera after another, as if he were afraid they would be too short if he presented only what truly interested and inspired him.

And though it may be unfair to make demands on the psychological verisimilitude of a fairytale, which is what this work is, here as elsewhere one sometimes feels that Tchaikovsky is afraid to look too closely into his characters' hearts, for fear of what he may find there. He isn't nervous about portraying the growing passion of a young girl for a more mature man, since that is safe ground. But it's difficult for him to envisage a passionate relationship which is happy, for obvious reasons, and his male characters tend to be stereotypes.

In this opera, the heroine's long-time betrothed has fallen for another woman, who, to judge from the enthusiastic aria he sings about her, is all extrovert passion and laughter; while his close friend, who falls for Iolanta as soon as he sees her, is on the lookout for a sensitive, not to say a wilting plant, and has the good fortune to find one. …

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