Teodor Currentzis, cond; Ekaterina Scherbachenko (
); Pavel Cernoch (
); Dimitry Ulianov (
); Willard White (
); Alexej Markov (
Paul Groves (
Dominique Blanc (
Young Singers of the JORCAM; Ch & O of Teatro Real
ICA 5082 (187 minutes) Live: Madrid 1/21-24/2012
How strange are our cultural choices! A little more than a generation ago,
—Tchaikovsky’s final opera—was unknown in the States. A one-act fairytale opera, it is filled with gorgeous melody and dramatic suspense. Above all, it contains Tchaikovsky’s great love duet, the missing ingredient to
. A mono set from the Leningrad Maly Opera appeared in 1955 on Bruno and Ultraphon LPs, both in dreadful sound. A Bolshoi stereo recording under Mark Ermler was issued in 1977 by Columbia. It attracted little attention, but Ethan Morden, in his invaluable
A Guide to Opera Recordings
(1987), wrote: “Columbia’s Bolshoi box with Tamara Sorokina, [Vladimir] Atlantov, [Yuri] Mazurok, and [Evgeny] Nesterenko is almost embarrassingly beautiful.” It may be heard on YouTube, in a so-so stereo transfer. An Erato recording appeared in 1986, from Paris with Mstislav Rostropovich leading past-their-primes Galina Vishnevskaya and Nicolai Gedda. Once the floodgates were opened, recordings poured in (I’ve found 15), mostly from Russia.
The most recent
reviews were by Don C. Seibert in 20:1 (Valery Gergiev) and 20:4 (Hans Rotman), who approved of both sets but still preferred Rostropovich. Also on YouTube is a Russian film (from a Japanese DVD, Dreamlife Classics DLVC 8060) with pretty actors who accurately sync the glorious voices of tenor Zurab Anjaparidze, bass Ivan Petrov, baritone Vladimir Valaitis, and Galina Oleinichenko’s too-light (for me) soprano, on a Boris Khaikin-led 1963 Bolshoi studio recording. The film is a bit silly, but its musical elements are marvelous, and the mono sound is better than the Ermler stereo.
Gergiev’s 1994 digital recording is surprisingly gutless, the singing fine but seldom inspired; he plods through the love duet and the finale (like a “Pomp and Circumstance” March, noted my wife). Philips’s odd digital sound manages to suppress the Kirov strings, which is almost an insult to Tchaikovsky. Dmitri Hvorotosky’s baritone is too suave for Robert’s wild paean to his mistress. Galina Gorchakova’s singing is beautiful but characterless—her youthful soprano and Vishnevsakya’s vocal acting might produce an ideal Iolanta. Only Gegam Grigorian’s Vaudémont breaks through, as passionate as ever and more at ease with high notes than usual.
The only other commercial DVD is a 1982 Bolshoi performance led by Ruben Vardanian. His cast can belt it out with the best of them, filling the giant theater, but the production is ludicrously old-fashioned; its costumes, sets, acting, direction, and monaural (!) sound take us back to the 1940s. It could serve as a satire titled “What’s wrong with opera?”
Putting all of those except Andzhaparidze to shame is a YouTube video of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón singing the love duet at a Paris concert (which is far more exciting than that on their recent DG disc of duets). Talk about great operatic moments!
Here are cast lists of the performances discussed above (dates are approximate):
Conductor Iolanta Vaudémont King René Ibn-Hakia Robert
1963 Khaikin Oleinichenko Anjaparidze Petrov Valaitis Lisitsian
1977 Ermler Sorokina Atlantov Nesterenko Valaitis Mazurok
1982 Vardanian Kalinina Kuznetsov Eisen Malchenko Morozov
1986 Rostropovich Vishnevskya Gedda Petkov Krause Grönroos
1994 Gergiev Gorchakova Grigorian Alexashkin Putilin Hvrotovsky
But those are all in a bastardized Soviet version, which altered Modest Tchaikovsky’s text—because it included the word “God” many times—and cut a good deal of his brother’s music. Stage and TV director Peter Sellars and conductor Teodor Currentzis have restored the original as far as they thought practical; I can’t judge their success because the materials are not accessible. They explain this in a bonus discussion which also includes soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko, speaking in (subtitled) Russian and looking even lovelier than when made up as Iolanta. The largest single change in the music is the restoration of a seven-minute closing chorus, “All of us . . . We sing to the Trinity,” but there are many smaller alterations, not all of which I may have caught, as there are many minor inconsistencies among the several productions discussed above.
This performance ranks among the best. The orchestra is excellent; tempos are a bit slow (so are Gergiev’s, surprisingly), which is dramatically effective but subdues some of the glorious music. Dimitry Ulianov’s King René can’t quite match the great Bolshoi basses, but he has a strong physical presence appropriate for the role. Willard White can and does; his Ibn-Hakia is as fine as one will hear. Alexej Markov is magnificent as Robert; his “Who can compare with my darling Mathilde?”—one of Tchaikovsky’s most potent arias—bursts with life. Pavel Cernoch’s tenor is a bit light for Vaudémont; he sings well but overacts much of the time (that might be Sellars, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the performances). He becomes angry when Iolanta hands him the wrong-colored rose; he should be merely puzzled (it leads to his realizing that she is blind). Scherbachenko is perhaps the best Iolanata on a complete recording. Her soprano, light but not as little-girlish as Oleinichenko or Sorokina, suits the role of the innocent blind princess; she not only sings beautifully but is a convincing actor. An underpowered climax to the love duet is this performance’s only disappointment—or is that just a reaction to Netrebko and Villazón? The production is modern dress in stark primary colors; the king wears a dark suit and tie. The minimal sets are dimly lit, with highly spotlighted singers; a handsome cast survives the many close-ups (which Vardanian’s Bolshoi cast does not). Sellars’s direction is simple and clean, ignoring a few details—there is no rose in sight at that critical moment, and Iolanta serves her guests wine by word only. The old Bolshoi performances have a power that this one lacks, but it has a delicate sensibility absent from Soviet Russia. For full Tchaikovskian glory: Khaikin. For truth and subtlety: Currentzis.
—Stravinsky’s curious ballet-melodrama-opera—is Sellars’s choice to fill the evening. He relates his reasons (the connections between the two composers and their mutual seeking of light from darkness in these works) in the bonus discussion. He has imported four dancers from Cambodia who perform their own delicate, exotic choreography. Paul Groves sings the tenor part manfully, and Dominique Blanc recites André Gide’s “very poetic but slightly abstruse” text (Blanc) with clarity and passion.
’s sets are now brightly lit. A clean and pointed orchestral performance sparkles, with every detail sounding. Currentzis, born in Athens in 1972, trained in St. Petersburg, and now artistic director of opera companies in Novosibirsk and Perm, is a charismatic leader who conducts with batonless Stokowskian hands. He has made several CDs with his own Musica Aeterna, plus DVDs of operas spanning the centuries:
Dido and Aeneas, Macbeth
(Paris National Opera), and
sets a new standard, beyond even the composer’s recordings.
Audio (Dolby Digital and Dolby 5.1 Surround) is bright, clear, and very well balanced, but the strings have a slightly glassy aura; they sound better in the rehearsal studio than in the theater. Video (16:9 NTSC) is excellent. Subtitles appear in Spanish, English, French, German, and Italian. There is also a Blu-ray version, which I have not seen.
James H. North