Light and Shade
Iolanta / Perséphone
Tchaikovsky / Stravinsky
directed by Peter Sellars
conducted by Teodor Currentzis
Festival d'årt Lyrique
d'Aix en Provence
Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta is based on a story by Danish poet Hendrik Hertz. Iolanta lives a well-protected life with her servants, but she is not happy. Her father, the King René, wants to keep the fact that she is blind a secret from her. It is forbidden, on pain of strict punishment, to speak to her about colour and light. That, however, is exactly what Graf Vaudémont, who enters the garden with Robert and falls in love with the sleeping princess, does.
Naturally King René is enraged, but Vaudémont's act fulfills the pre-requisite demanded by the doctor Ibn-Hakia, sung with conviction and authority by dark-timbred bass Willard White, as a condition for her possible cure, since in order to be healed she needs to understand her circumstances and wish to change them.
Until the moment of her cure poor Iolanta (Ekaterina Scherbachenko) cannot see the wonderful staging, in which George Tsypin's sets - a bizarre garden of symbolic doors and objects which transform from midnight blue to luminous red when Vaudemont speaks of light. The effect is suggestive and enchanting, leaving considerable room open for the viewer's imagination. Scherbachenko's performance is moving, her voice a pleasing mixture of lightness and depth. She never sounds strained, and at times even seems to hold back.
The role of King René is sung by Dmitry Ulyanov, with an elegant, cultivated and voluminous bass instrument. His is a dominating presence, and Polish tenor Arnold Rutkowski, in the part of Vaudémont, cannot entirely match it - the strain in his voice is often audible, though his performance improves in the course of the evening - while the duet with baritone Maxim Aniskin as Robert is restrained, the subsequent duet with Iolanta blossoms.
The play of colour and light is presented plausibly enough to draw the viewer into another world, and the listener is guided into a very special sound-world. The work begins like a piece of chamber music, with woodwinds, but anyone waiting for the full glory of Tchaikovsky's instrumental writing will not be disappointed. The architecture of a typically instrumented work develops in a large arch, but the music is also full of unexpected surprises. An unexpected highlight comes in the form of the interpolated Hymn of the Cherubim, an acapella choral work by Tchaikovsky, sung here by the Choir of the Opéra National de Lyon as a kind of homage to nature, light and colour. It is a moment that appeals to all the senses and makes you hold your breath. The orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon plays under the direction of Teodor Currentzis do so with sensitivity, never aiming for splashy effects, always demonstrating the colourful nature of the score. Even so they give the impression that Stravinsky's music suits them better - a different tone colour is called for, and here individual groups of the orchestra are brought to the fore, as for instance in the big oboe solo. Currentzis reveals himself in both cases as a competent musician, as much for the singers as for both scores.
Igor Stravinsky's Perséphone is a dance melodrama for singer, speaker, dancers, choir and children's chorus. It was premiered in 1934 together with Maurice Ravel's La Valse.
As with Tchaikovsky, the story swings between two worlds, here the earth and the underworld. Perséphone, the daughter of Demeter, is courted by Pluto and follows him to the underworld, but she can also return to her mother on earth. The story is narrated by Perséphone, a spoken role played here by Dominique Blanc with exceptionally clear articulation, and by Eumolpe, sung by tenor Paul Groves with sweet lyricism. The dancers of the Amrita Performing Arts tell the story with impressive grace at the same time on the stage, alongside the impressive choir and children's choir of the Lyon Opera.
The work and with it the evening end on on a note of almost religious contemplation. An evening of transitions reaches its end, from one world to the other, supported by profound lighting (by James F. Ingalls), from light to darkness and back to light. The audience is drawn into a world of sound and light and leaves impressed, perhaps reflecting on these themes.
photos | ©Pascal Victor