Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” may be the most popular ballet of all time, but when it premiered on a double bill at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, in December 1892, it was the audience’s decided second choice. The favorite that evening was Tchaikovsky’s final opera, “Iolanta,” a 90-minute, one-act work about a blind princess. It has since become as undeservedly obscure as “The Nutcracker” is deservedly famous, so it was a pleasure to see it Sunday as the opening offering of the weeklong Second International Rachmaninoff Russian Music Festival.
Iolanta is the daughter of René, King of Provence, but she doesn’t know that; neither does she realize she is blind. Her father, who thinks she will be unhappy if she learns the truth, kept her secluded in an enclosed garden while she grew up. He has also concealed her condition from her fiance, Robert, Duke of Burgundy. When Robert and his friend Count Vaudémont stumble upon the secret garden where Iolanta and her attendants live, and she and the count fall in love, light threatens to break forth. The libretto — which Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest adapted from the play “King René’s Daughter,” by Danish author Henrik Hertz — has been variously interpreted. Was Tchaikovsky envisioning a “cure” for the “blindness” of his homosexuality? Or was he hoping to come out of the closet? “Iolanta” clearly harks back to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” so perhaps the opera is simply about the triumph of love and wisdom over prejudice and ignorance.
At Makor Concert Hall in Brighton, the stage evoked Provence’s Greek heritage, with a white color palette and suggestions of Doric columns. A staircase led to a balcony where Iolanta slept; vases held red and white roses. (Iolanta, of course, doesn’t know one color from another; that’s how Vaudémont discovers she is blind.) Under Sergei Khanukaev, the 20-piece orchestra, to the house right of the stage, performed miracles; Tchaikovsky would have felt at home with the nasal woodwinds.
On Sunday, Dina Kuznetsova as Iolanta, Mikhail Svetlov as René, Adam Klein as Vaudémont, and David Gvinianidze as Duke Robert led an outstanding ensemble, singing powerfully (sometimes at the expense of nuance) and acting with naturalistic fervor. (There will be some cast changes for the second performance on Tuesday.) Best of all, both the Russian text and an English translation were projected on the wall to the house left of the stage. Seldom is opera so easy to enjoy.