Iolanta, Grand Theatre, Swansea

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The Independent Culture

Like his great idol, Mozart, Tchaikovsky ended his operatic career not with a bang but a whimper - or so it has always been supposed.

Like his great idol, Mozart, Tchaikovsky ended his operatic career not with a bang but a whimper - or so it has always been supposed. Iolanta, written in 1891 as a companion-piece to The Nutcracker, is a dramatically flat, if touching, one-acter about a blind Provençal princess whose sight is restored by a holistic Moorish doctor through the girl's desire to save her lover, condemned to death for telling her that she is blind.

The libretto, by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, is clinical: everything goes along predictably. But the music remains vintage Tchaikovsky, not consistently on the level of its immediate predecessor The Queen of Spades or the Pathétique symphony, but still full of good things that hardly deserve the oblivion they seem to have enjoyed since the single production in St Pancras nearly 40 years ago.

The problem in staging Iolanta, I imagine, would be its lack of dramatic edge (no bad characters, and no spanners in the narrative wheels). Welsh National Opera have got round this difficulty by presenting it in concert performance, which, in Swansea's beautiful but optimistically misnamed Grand Theatre, means putting Tchaikovsky's biggish orchestra on the stage with the chorus at the back and the 10 soloists shoulder to shoulder along the front of a platform extension in front of the proscenium arch.

Unencumbered by costume or stage direction, and with no more than token gestures, the singers took full advantage of what is very gutsy music.

There are big numbers for Iolanta's father, for the doctor, for the lover, and for the Duke of Burgundy, who saves the situation. Ilya Bannik, Pavel Baransky, Peter Hoare, and Vladimir Moroz vie with each other to fill this modest house with superb Slavic and pseudo-Slavic tones. Nuccia Focile, looking suitably tender and vulnerable, sings Iolanta's questioning arioso about the meaning of life and nature with vivid colouring and in not-half-bad Russian; and there is fine support from, among others, Clare Shearer as Iolanta's nurse and David Soar as her husband, the old janitor.

Vassily Sinaisky conducted with huge affection and attention to detail. Under such treatment, the obvious sentimentality of the concept quickly gave way to something infinitely more touching and, if WNO do ever stage this piece in a sensible double-bill, they'll surely have a success on their hands.

For tour dates, see www.wno.org.uk

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