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Tchaikovsky's Final Opera: "Iolanta"

Portrait of composer Piotr Illych Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov
Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov

This week on Sunday Night at the Opera, it's Tchaikovsky's final stage work (written in conjunction with his ballet "The Nutcracker"): "Iolanta."

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Iolanta

Iolanta: Galina Gorchakova
King René: Sergei Alexashkin
Robert: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Vaudémont: Gegam Grigorian
Ibn-Hakia: Nikolai Putilin
Alméric: Nikolai Gassiev
Bertrand: Gennady Bezzubenkov
Martha: Larissa Diadkova
Brigitta: Tatiana Kravtsova
Laura: Olga Korzhenskaya

Kirov Orchestra and Chorus, St. Petersburg
Valery Gergiev, conductor

Read the story synopsis for Tchaikovsky's Iolanta here.

Every winter, I pick a weekend and dutifully and joyfully set off to see another performance of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker with Boston Ballet. It's a tradition I look forward to year after year, and always leaves me ready to take on the Holidays. However, every winter, I am also left with the impression that the ballet really ought to be just a little bit longer; at just over an hour and a half, at times it feels like I have only just thawed and already it's time to head back out into the cold. More than "time flies when you're having fun," I shuffle outside of the Boston Opera House with the distinct feeling that something is missing.

As it turns out, that feeling isn't misplaced. Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker actually is missing something: its other half.

The Nutcracker, for all its immense popularity, was not composed as an isolated unit. Rather, when it premiered in 1892 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, it did so as a back-to-back production with Tchaikovsky's much less well-known opera, Iolanta.

Iolanta is a one-act opera, and just like The Nutcracker, runs at just over an hour and a half. It's about the princess Iolanta, who is blind since birth. Remarkably, she is has been kept entirely unaware of her blindness by her father, King René, who hopes that he can secure an advantageous marriage for her to Robert, Duke of Burgundy. This plan, unsurprisingly, doesn't work out: Iolanta finds out about her blindness, and Robert is in love with someone else... but all is not lost. Iolanta, by the end of the opera, not only regains her sight, but also marries Robert's friend (and the man who enlightened her to her blindness), the Count Vaudémont,  

In short, if you (like me) ever found that you wanted more at the end of a run of The Nutcracker, then Iolanta is in every way the perfect partner: the music is superlative, the action is succinct, the story is fanciful (though admittedly less imagination-igniting than Clara's trip to the world of sugarplum fairies and marching toy soldiers), and it ends happily-ever-after. 

Read more about the history of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta.

Here's a beautiful example of the music from Iolanta: Iolanta's aria from Scene 1, in which she sings about the feeling that something is missing from her life, that all is not the way it should be.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.