By Patrick O’Brien
The last time this reviewer covered an opera for this site, the three fundamental questions of theatregoing loomed prominently and the results, in his opinion, were found wanting and not without a little warning.
Reviewing a second opera within a short span of time — Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta— these questions crop up again. Perhaps unfairly.
After all, in mood and form, Tchaikovsky’s opera is well-removed from Mozart’s; a one-act ninety-minute near-chamber piece is not a three-act four-hour epic; one company has not had any public labor disputes…
This is why going back to basics is a good first step.
So, to recap, the Three Questions:
- What were the theatermakers trying to do?
- Did they do it well?
- Was it worth it?
Iolanta is consistent with Chicago Opera’s mission statement to prioritize premieres. It’s the opera’s professional premiere in the Chicagoland area; the company’s first outing in Russian; and the debut of Maestra Lidiya Yankovskaya at the podium.
So a lot of firsts, but for what cause? What can we in the here-and-now take away from a retrograde fairy tale about a reclusive blind princess and her restrictive father — so restrictive, in fact, he forbids any mention of sight or light in her presence?
Well, with assistance from Director Paul Curran, Iolanta is a feast for the senses, an aural and visual splendor. The fairy tale becomes an ageless journey of a young woman’s emotional and sexual awakening, as well as her father’s reckoning with that heartbreaking inevitability. The magic of a long-ago and faraway realm is conjured with spinning shimmering Art Nouveau towers (by Alan E. Muraoka), dazzling light tricks (Driscoll Otto), and (perhaps another company first) the theater fills with the scent of lilacs.
Katherine Weber confidently inhabits the role, bursting forth with conviction as she comes to learn of the deceit that has governed her life and desires to grow. John Irvin is a perfect lover as Vaudemont, who inadvertently finds himself responsible for Iolanta’s newfound understanding. And as her father the king, Mikhail Svetlov is sympathetic, even in light of his crippling decision. All follow Maestra Yankovskaya with ease, and she brings the piece to full flower.
The piece is sure to return — Tchaikovsky’s music is always uniquely yearning, and his brother Modest’s libretto is poetic without being bathetic.
So, is it worth it?
Yes, without hesitation. COT’s Iolanta is a vital production — it speaks to an ageless struggle between youth and their guardians; it’s a blissful romance for the coming cold season; and to be given such care for its Chicago coming-out. And, for anyone who has had recent doubts about the vitality of opera, it’s a pure tonic.
Chicago Opera Theater presents “Iolanta” through November 18 at The Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.