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On this week’s Opera House I'll present a pair of one-act Russian operas that are occasionally paired: Peter Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Aleko. The poetic story of Iolanta, who has been blind from birth and is cured of her ailment through love, inspired Tchaikovsky to compose his last opera, and the premiere took place at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892.
The opera takes place in the mountains of southern France during the 15 th century. King René (bass Vitalij Kowaljow) has had his blind daughter Iolanta (soprano Anna Netrebko) brought up in a locked garden. She does not know she is blind, as none of her entourage has ever told her. But Iolanta is filled with painful premonitions: she asks herself if eyes are only there for weeping. Her nursemaid Martha (contralto Monika Bohinec) and companions Brigitta (soprano Theresa Plut) and Laura (mezzo-soprano Nuška Rojko) attempt to comfort her. The armor-bearer Alméric (tenor Junho You) announces the king’s arrival to the doorkeeper Bertrand (bass Luka Debevc Mayer) and is told that the king’s daughter lives there. The Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia (baritone Lucas Meachem) advises the king to tell Iolanta the truth, saying that she can be cured if she is told of her condition and desires to see. But the king wishes to preserve her from this fate.
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Duke Robert of Burgundy (baritone Alexey Markov) and his companion Count Vaudémont (tenor Sergey Skorokhodov) penetrate the secret garden. Robert has long been engaged to Iolanta but has never seen her. However, he wishes to break off the engagement as he has fallen in love with Countess Mathilde of Lorraine. The two men encounter a woman asleep in the garden and are enchanted at the sight of her. After Robert leaves, Vaudémont talks to the woman and realizes that she is blind. Iolanta does not believe him when he talks about light and color. The king is furious that Iolanta has discovered the truth about her blindness. But Ibn-Hakia sees that the right moment for a cure has arrived. The king threatens to have Vaudémont killed if Iolanta is not cured. Iolanta is willing to suffer anything to save her lover.
While the physician takes Iolanta away to be treated, the king explains to the astonished Vaudémont that he has made this threat solely in order to strengthen Iolanta’s desire to be cured. Vaudémont confesses his love for Iolanta and asks the king for her hand in marriage. The king tells him that Iolanta is already promised to another. When Robert learns of what has happened, he asks the king to release him from his engagement to Iolanta. The problem is solved when the king agrees to allow Vaudémont to marry his daughter. Cured of her blindness, Iolanta is led in: she is overwhelmed and frightened by the manifold colors and shapes of nature. Then, seeing the light of the sky, she intones a hymn of praise to the Creator.
Emmanuel Villaume conducts the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra and the Slovenian Chamber Choir in this 2015 Deutsche Grammophon recording.
Anna Netrebko sings Iolanta's arioso, “Otchego eto prezhde ne znala.” Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra:
Aleko, which was fashioned from Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Gypsies,” was premiered on April 27, 1893. After the stunning success of Rachmaninoff’s opera, Tchaikovsky asked the younger composer if he would agree to a combined production of Iolanta and Aleko at the Bolshoi Theatre. Sadly, Tchaikovsky’s unexpected death prevented this plan from coming to fruition.
As the opera opens, a band of gypsies has pitched its tents for the night on the bank of a river. Beneath a pale moon, they light campfires, prepare a meal and sing of the freedom of their nomadic existence. An Old Gypsy (bass Dimiter Petkov) tells a story. Long ago he loved Mariula, who deserted him for another man, leaving behind a daughter, Zemfira (soprano Blagovesta Kamobatlova). Zemfira is now grown up, has her own child, and lives with Aleko (bass Nikola Ghiuselev), a Russian who has abandoned civilization for the gypsy life. Hearing this story, Aleko is outraged that Zemfira’s father took no revenge on Mariula. But Zemfira disagrees. For her, as for her mother, love is free, and she herself has already tired of Aleko’s possessiveness and now loves a Young Gypsy (tenor Pavel Kourchoumov), one of her own people.
After dances for the women and the men, the gypsies settle down to sleep. Zemfira appears with the Young Gypsy, whom she kisses passionately before disappearing into her own tent to look after her child. Aleko enters and Zemfira taunts him. She later sings her baby to sleep with a song about an old man who will not free his young wife. Alone, Aleko broods on the catastrophe of his relationship with Zemfira and the failure of his attempt to flee the ordinary world. As dawn comes, he surprises Zemfira and her lover together. In a jealous fit he kills them both. An Old Gypsy Woman (soprano Tony Christova) and the other gypsies gather, disturbed by the noise. Led by Zemfira’s father, they spare Aleko’s life but exile him.
Rouslan Raichev conducts the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bulgarian Broadcasting Chorus in this 1990 AVM Classics recording.
Ildar Abdrazakov sings Aleko’s Cavatina:
As a bonus we’ll hear bass Sergei Kopcák sing the Czar’s farewell to his son in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
The WCPE Opera House is heard every Thursday evening at 7 o’clock in the Eastern time zone on 89.7 FM in central North Carolina, and we’re streamed Live online at on our Internet page or you can listen on WCPE's Android or iPhone apps.
— W. Robert Chapman, Host of the WCPE Opera House
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