double play

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta Gorchakova, Grigorian, Hvorostovsky, Kirov Opera & Orchestra / Gergiev (Philips 442 796-2; two discs)
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The Independent Culture
The first thing you hear is this sombre Greek Chorus of woodwinds. And it might almost be happening inside your head. A strange and enclosed world - the world according to Iolanta. Darkness. And then Tchaikovsky introduces a string quartet, a harp, touches of sweet archaic harmony. And suddenly there is light. And beauty and reassurance - a safe haven.

This, too, is the world according to Iolanta. Iolanta, King Rene's daughter, is blind. But in his Kingdom, no one sees, no one speaks of seeing - the King has decreed it. Iolanta must believe herself to be normal. But she has this feeling deep inside her, and it's only a matter of time before someone unlocks it...

Real operatic potential there, and didn't Tchaikovsky know it. He sets it up marvellously, conjuring at one and the same time both the darkness of Iolanta's inner world and the light and visual beauty that we see but that is denied her. And the wonder, the intrigue, is in the restraint of the writing.

The composer of Eugene Onegin had little or nothing to learn on that score. Yet, Tchaikovsky's last opera (originally conceived as a one-act companion piece to the Nutcracker) promises more than it ultimately delivers. The libretto, by the composer's brother Modeste, is best not scrutinised too closely, and the denouement - yes, Iolanta does, of course, see the light - is played out to one of Peter Ilyich's clunkier tunes. Bizarre, when so much of this score is subtlety itself.

There is one truly inspiring passage, a frozen moment at the heart of the love duet (that, in itself, the heart of the score, the emotional centre) where Iolanta believes that her suitor has gone, deserted her, that she is once more "alone". And it's as if all the emptiness she ever felt is concentrated into that one moment. Galina Gorchakova captures it and holds it and enthrals with it. The longing in her timbre has rarely been deployed to more poignant effect. It's a beautiful, thrilling, unstinting performance. As are they all. Tchaikovsky's generosity to singers (the sheer ease and freedom of the writing meets them more than half way) is amply repaid.

Characters are built in single arias. Sergei Alexashkin's King assumes a tragic basso nobility in his, Nikolai Putilin's magician, Ibn-Hakia, is afforded something more searching and exotic, while our two virile suitors, Gegam Grigorian (Vaudemont) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Robert), come leaping off the pages of Russian operatic folklore with two shining romances - as fine as anything in Tchaikovsky. The best of Iolanta is. Strange, fragrant, haunting. And even where the inspiration falters, you can be sure its heart is always in the right place. Under Valery Gergiev, it beats faster and stronger than it might otherwise.

The total playing time, by the way, is just under 96 minutes over two CDs. Are Philips making any concession in the price? ES

Give Tchaikovsky a sentimental story and he could turn it into a great ballet. Unfortunately, the alchemical process doesn't seem to have worked nearly so well when it came to opera. Granted, Iolanta does get off to a promising start. The use of wind instruments alone for long stretches of the Introduction - the orchestra deprived, as it were, of the luminous sound of strings - makes a plausible (if not quite politically correct) analogy for the young Princess Iolanta's blindness. Her first aria is quite touching, but it doesn't exactly fire one's hopes - Iolanta is going to be a pretty pallid creature, barely two-dimensional compared to the abundantly alive Tatyana in Eugene Onegin. The final scene, in which the heroine recovers her sight, should have awakened Tchaikovsky the magician at last. But it doesn't, and the outcome is a leaden apotheosis of a tune that wasn't top-drawer Tchaikovsky in the first place.

But one can't say that Valery Gergiev and his team don't give it a chance. Kirov star Galina Gorchakova gives her very considerable all to the title role, wringing every last drop of pathos from her monologues and from the love music with her suitor Vaudemont - tenor Gegam Grigorian muscling in impressively alongside her. And there are some nice touches from Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the relatively shadowy role of Robert. The Kirov Orchestra plays magnificently - the passion and drive are recognisably Russian, as is the sound of some of the solo playing, but there's little of the coarseness one used to associate with old Soviet opera recordings. Gergiev directs with his usual authority, sustaining the pace even when the invention thins out.

Given so many recorded triumphs, Gergiev and the Kirov can be allowed the occasional flop - especially since it isn't really their fault. But a flop it is. There are more deserving Tchaikovsky operas, apart from Onegin and Queen of Spades - The Slippers, for instance. So now Gergiev has done his duty to Iolanta, let's see what he can do with a real fairy- tale opera. SJ