25 January 2015

CD REVIEW: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – IOLANTA (A. Netrebko, S. Skorokhodov, V. Kowaljow, A. Markov, L. Meachem; DGG 479 3969)

CD REVIEW: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - IOLANTA (Deutsche Grammophon 479 3969)PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY / Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский (1840 – 1893): Iolanta (Иоланта), Op. 69Anna Netrebko (Iolanta), Sergey Skorokhodov (Count Vaudémont), Alexey Markov (Robert), Vitalij Kowaljow (King René), Luka Debevec Mayer (Bertrand), Lucas Meachem (Ibn-Hakia), Junho You (Alméric), Monika Bohinec (Martha), Theresa Plut (Brigitta), Nuška Drašček Rojko (Laura); Slovenian Chamber Choir; Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra; Emmanuel Villaume, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at the Philharmonie Essen, Germany, in November 2012; Deutsche Grammophon 479 3969; 2 CDs, 93:02; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Premièred in St Petersburg on 18 December 1892, less than a year before its composer’s death, Iolanta was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s final opera and, in many ways, one that summarized his career as a composer for the operatic stage. Setting a libretto by his brother Modest, Tchaikovsky peeled away the artifice of the aggrandized tale of Yolande de Lorraine, who almost certainly was not blind, and replaced it with an idealized but red-blooded humanity. As in Yevgeny Onegin and Pikovaya dama, the central theme of individual isolation lends Iolanta depth that heightens the sense of connection among the princess who does not know that she is blind, the man who loves her in spite of her trials, and the audience, and, as in Nutcracker and Swan Lake, even the happy ending is not without suggestions of ambivalence. To modern ears, some of the sentiments expressed in Iolanta seem quaint, perhaps even misogynistic, but to the extraordinarily sensitive Tchaikovsky, a genius perennially at odds with the society into which he was born, Iolanta must have seemed a kindred spirit. For her, blindness—the barrier to her complete acceptance by society, by which she is pitied and shielded—is not a disability, disease, or disorder: it is a reality of which she is aware despite not knowing that her blindness separates her from her physical and social surroundings. This surely resonated with Tchaikovsky, whose correspondence from the final year of his life discloses a despondent weariness with the necessity of false conformity. Recorded during concert presentations in the Philharmonie Essen with the sonic excellence for which Deutsche Grammophon titles have been renowned throughout the label’s history, this recording of Iolanta allows this wonderful score to resonate with a new generation of listeners. Perhaps much of the interest in this recording will be prompted by the famous name at the head of the cast. So be it. In this case, the bearer of that name justifies its prominence and must be thanked for giving Tchaikovsky’s endearing heroine an opportunity to transport listeners beyond what can be seen.

Conducted with persuasive Gallic refinement by Emmanuel Villaume, the Slovenian Chamber Choir and Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra approach Tchaikovsky’s music with energy and sophistication. There is in Iolanta a pervasive kinship with the music of Jules Massenet, and Maestro Villaume instinctively responds to the melancholic Francophile undercurrents in the score, exercising a firm control on thematic development in ensembles. Massenet and Tchaikovsky shared a great affection for Mozart, and even in this final opera of his career there is a Mozartean grace in Tchaikovsky’s orchestrations. Maestro Villaume avoids inflating any phrase or scene to dimensions greater than the music can sustain. Starting with strongly-sung accounts of ‘Vot tebe lyutiki’ (‘Вот, тебе, лютики’) and ‘Spi, pust' angelï krïlami navevayut snï’ (‘Спи, пусть ангелы крылами навевают сны’), the choristers convincingly portray the differing rôles assigned to them, sounding comfortable with Tchaikovsky’s most stringent demands. The orchestral players leave no doubt that the musical glories of Slovenia’s past, when Ljubljana was a jewel in the diadem alongside Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, have been lovingly maintained. The strings produce formidably sure intonation that complements the earthy wind playing, combining Germanic rectitude with Mediterranean flexibility. This is an ideal formula for playing the music of Tchaikovsky, whose unmistakably Russian musicality was spiced with doses of French cosmopolitanism, Teutonic ruggedness, and Italianate rusticity. Those who assume that Iolanta is an inferior score because it is performed less frequently than Yevgeny Onegin or Pikovaya dama do Tchaikovsky a great disservice: Maestro Villaume and the Slovenian Philharmonic forces affirm that Iolanta is smaller in stature than her siblings but equally effective, musically and dramatically.

As Iolanta’s companions Brigitta and Laura, Canadian soprano Theresa Plut and ​Slovenian mezzo-soprano Nuška Drašček Rojko sing attractively, bringing delightfully unique touches to their performances and combining flawlessly with Slovenian mezzo-soprano Monika Bohinec’s Martha in their sumptuous little trio. Ms. Bohinec is an alert singer with a distinctive voice, and she aptly conveys affection and concern for Iolanta. Singing Bertrand with a robust timbre and apparent dramatic instincts, bass-baritone Luka Debevec Mayer is a suitable consort for Ms. Bohinec’s Martha. His slightly imperious demeanor is appropriate for the castle doorkeeper who, like Raimondo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, is the de facto guardian of King René and his family honor. South Korean tenor Junho You makes a similarly positive impression in his duties as Alméric, King René's armor-bearer. Few performances, whether on stage or on disc, enjoy such consistently fine work in supporting rôles: great indeed were the vocal riches of medieval Burgundy!

American baritone Lucas Meachem is here given a vehicle in which to display his virile, brusquely beautiful voice in music that enables this tremendously gifted young singer to show what he can do. There are in his interpretation of the Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia unexpectedly noble sentiments. Far too often, this rôle is enacted as an uncomfortable stereotype, but Mr. Meachem finds in his music sympathetic threads of sincerity and feeling. The celebrated monologue ‘Dva mira’ (‘Два мира: плотский и духовный’) is the cornerstone of the part, and Mr. Meachem manages its sixteenth-note triplets and sustained top F♯ with absolute freedom and panache. Hearing his performance, it is unusually obvious that Ibn-Hakia plays a crucial part in the emotional transition that accompanies the physical restoration of Iolanta’s sight. Frequently merely a conjurer, Ibn-Hakia is in Mr. Meachem’s hands a true healer. This brilliantly-sung performance raises hopes that, in time, recordings of his Onegin and Yeletsky will follow.

As Robert, the man torn between his duty to honor an arranged betrothal to Iolanta and his passionate love for another woman, Russian baritone Alexey Markov exudes chivalrous masculinity in singing of power and security. In Robert’s aria extolling the virtues of his true love, ‘Kto možet sravnit'sya’ (‘Кто может сравниться с Матильдой моей’), he negotiates the high tessitura—the second note of the aria is a sustained top E, leading quickly to a sustained top F♯—with refreshing ease, and his fortissimo top G is a thrilling tone. Like Mr. Meachem, Mr. Markov eschews all vestiges of conventional operatic preening and sings his rôle with compelling honesty. The scene in which Robert agrees to honor his commitment to Iolanta though his heart belongs to another is strangely moving thanks to Mr. Markov’s forthright performance. It is impossible not to think of Tchaikovsky himself feeling forced to wed, contrary to his desires, in order to keep up appearances. Vocally, Mr. Markov’s Robert is a marvel, and it is heartening to hear a young singer trusting a composer’s music so implicitly.

A fusion of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra, Wagner’s Wotan, and Tchaikovsky’s own Kochubey in Mazeppa, King René in Iolanta is a flawed but earnestly protective father whose actions are inspired by recognition of even a king’s inability to thwart social stigmas. As sung by Swiss-Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow, he is a warmly sonorous presence whose good nature does not prevent a streak of iron from showing when his daughter’s wellbeing seems jeopardized. Though his vibrato occasionally loosens slightly, Mr. Kowaljow’s command of the range required by René music is appreciable. In the king’s arioso, ‘Gospod' moy, esli grešen ya’ (‘Господь мой, если грешен я’), the singer unperturbedly traverses the two octaves from F2 to F4 and exhibits no fear in the repeated ascents to top E♭. The gruffness of his threats of execution does not fully disguise a basic geniality, and he enhances the dignity of his performance with his clear, unaffected enunciation of text. It is a pity that Russian is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers because it is a gorgeous language for singing, something that Mr. Kowaljow makes particularly noticeable in this performance. King René launches the opera’s finale with ‘Prosti menya, ya obmanul tebya’ (‘Прости меня, я обманул тебя’), and Mr. Kowaljow sings it confidently. His well-supported, dark-hued sound brings to mind the voices of Feodor Chaliapin and Mark Reizen, and even when René’s decisions are misguided this singer’s deliveries of them are assured and appealing.

For excitement, intensity, and golden tone, the performance of Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Count Vaudémont is astounding. To date, this young singer’s repertory at the Mariinsky ranges from Donizetti's Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore to Wagner's Lohengrin and the Shepherd in Szymanowski's Król Roger, and his experience with these rôles prepared him to impersonate a Vaudémont of ringing ardor. He begins his romance, ‘Net! Čarï lask krasï myatežnoy’ (‘Нет! Чары ласк красы мятежной’), with an endearing aura of lovesick wonder, and he is little bothered by the high tessitura of the aria proper, which opens on top A♭. He rises to the long-held top B♭ with total security. In the wonderful duet with Iolanta, ‘Čudnïy pervenec tvoren'ya’ (‘Чудный первенец творенья’), the outpouring of firm, youthful tone is encouraging. Throughout his performance, Mr. Skorokhodov sings with a very welcome lack of traditional tenor posturing, credibly portraying a young man near to bursting with new love. This sometimes leads to a sameness of approach and bluntness of phrasing, but the lyric splendor of the voice disarms complaint. Mr. Skorokhodov is clearly an invaluable treasure of the Mariinsky, one whose 2010 Metropolitan Opera début in Shostakovich’s The Nose continued the legacy of great Russian tenor singing in New York exemplified in the 1990s by Vladimir Atlantov, and this performance confirms the legitimacy of his place in the tradition of the legendary Ivan Kozlovsky.

In her performance of the title rôle in Iolanta, a portrayal that she brings to the Metropolitan Opera in the current season, soprano Anna Netrebko displays the full panoply of the qualities that elevated her to the top of her profession. One of the most acclaimed sopranos of her generation, Ms. Netrebko is an important singer who has not always sounded like one. In her—or her management’s—quest for stardom on the world’s stages, she has appropriated bel canto and Verdi rôles to which the voice is not ideally suited by nature, and her musical success has been sporadic. Even in her native Russian, her diction is imperfect, but as Iolanta she offers an example of the Anna Netrebko of worldwide adulation. In Iolanta’s arioso, ‘Otčego ėto prežde ne znala’ (‘Отчего это прежде не знала’), its tessitura centered in the lower octave of the voice, Ms. Netrebko sings lusciously, the tone focused and caressing the line cresting on top A♭. The duet with Vaudémont, ‘Čudnïy pervenec tvoren'ya’ (‘Чудный первенец творенья’), finds her interacting with Mr. Skorokhodov with unforced chemistry, and she takes the profusion of top As and the exhilarating top B♭ at the duet’s end in stride, the voice remaining secure and capably-projected. Her phrasing of ‘Gde ya? Kuda vedyoš' menya tï, vrač!’ (‘Где я? Куда ведешь меня ты, врач!’) and ‘Blagoy, velikiy, neizmennïy’ (‘Благой, великий, неизменный’) in the opera’s final scene is masterful, and the immediacy of the dramatic profile that she creates for Iolanta is specific but nuanced. In every scene in which she appears, she matches an insightful understanding of her rôle with an authoritative grasp of the music. The intermittent blowsiness of her tone here seems to result from the increased weight and amplitude of the voice rather than from hard use, and the solidity of her intonation throughout the range is wonderful. Iolanta is a near-perfect fit for Ms. Netrebko, and it is a joy to hear her sing the part so meaningfully and with such uncompromising musicality.

With Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Markov reprising their rôles in this season’s Metropolitan Opera première of Iolanta, opening on 26 January, the opera’s familiarity will hopefully expand exponentially. An eloquent, strangely bewitching product of Tchaikovsky’s mature genius, the score is worthy of the respect and recognition devoted to Yevgeny Onegin and Pikovaya dama. In this recording, Iolanta is superbly performed by an ensemble of musicians who understand its worth and potential, and in the company of dedicated colleagues the leading lady proves that she is a significant artist, not just a cleverly-managed approximation of one. Iolanta is an opera that reminds the listener that each of us is blind to some aspect of life, and Deutsche Grammophon’s recording provides an eye-opening experience.