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Opera Bel Cantanti, "Iolanta"

Opera Bel Cantanti is doing all the things that a small local opera company should. I was sad to miss their winter production, Rachmaninov's Aleko (reprised from the previous summer), because it is an opera that I may never have another chance to hear live (although OBC may bring it back). That is what local and collegiate opera companies should do, operas that bigger mainstream companies are just too staid and predictable to touch: Maryland Opera Studio's choice of Cimarosa this year and Gluck's Armide and Conrad Susa's Transformations next year, Catholic University's premiere of The Furies, Washington Concert Opera's performance of Rossini's Tancredi, Opera Lafayette's Sacchini and Idomeneo, Ignoti Dei's upcoming La Didone. The 13,000th production of Don Giovanni, Magic Flute or Il Trovatore usually bores me to tears, unless it has truly superlative singing (unlikely for this kind of company) or an unusual directorial concept.

Opera Bel Cantanti, Iolanta, photo by Opera Bel CantantiThe latest opera OBC has brought to Washington is the charming one-act Iolanta by Tchaikovsky. Imagine characters based on 15th-century French history, set in a fictional story by Danish playwright Henrik Hertz, transformed into a Russian opera by Tchaikovsky on a libretto by his brother Modest. I missed the initial run of performances last month (reviewed by the Washington Post), but I was there at the Lyceum in Alexandria on Wednesday night for the first of two encore performances. The production is simple but elegant enough: bare-bones set pieces and props take back seat in the budget to fairly ornate and colorful costumes. Although Opera Bel Cantanti sometimes uses a string quartet to approximate at least part of the orchestration (as in their production of La Fille du Régiment last fall), here it was only the artistic director, Katerina Souverova (an accompanist with Baltimore Opera and a talented pianist) at the piano. She was joined very briefly by one of the company's trustees -- Kathleen McGhee, who also designed the costumes -- in a minimal part on the harp.

Souvorova finds talented singers, many of whom are currently enrolled in or have recently finished graduate studies in the area or are already singing professionally, in one of the region's opera choruses, for example. Soprano Emily Ezzie was a sweet Iolanta, both vocally and dramatically, convincing as the pretty girl sheltered from the knowledge of her own blindness by her protective father, King René. The chorus of supporting women has some pretty and sometimes complicated music, as well: round-voiced mezzo-soprano Lingling Peng stood out as Iolanta's nurse, Marta, as did the charming Jessica Renfro as her friend Laura.

Bass Vladimir Ekzarkhov looked the part of King René and had enough heft, although the top notes of the part were not in line on this evening and there was a noticeable wobble. Tenor Kevin Perry brought a strong and sure tenor voice to the role of Vaudémont, the knight who falls in love with Iolanta. Baritones Matt Osifchin (Robert) and Bryan Jackson (Ibn-Khakia) were equally strong although not as subtle. My only complaint about the singing in this performance was that it could have been scaled better to the scope of the venue. We could hear everything quite clearly without some of the shouting, perhaps driven by Souvarova's athletic and molto martellato approach to much of the score. Let's just say that at times I was glad to be in the back row.

The best part of the experience was the discovery of this mostly unknown opera, premiered at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater during the December holidays in 1892, where it was paired with his fluffy little ballet about a girl who gets a nutcracker for Christmas. The latter, although charming, is performed far too often, while the former practically vanished. Iolanta is not even in the Mariinsky's current repertory. Tchaikovsky worked on both of these twilight stage works after returning from a happy and successful conducting tour of the United States: he was given the subject for the ballet, which he never liked, but he chose the story of Iolanta. It has some lovely parts, including Iolanta's bittersweet opening aria ("Are eyes only for crying?"), King René's prayer, the sweet duet of Vaudémont and Iolanta as he realizes that she cannot tell which color rose she is handing him (happily a less loud passage for my ears), and the finale as Iolanta sees her enclosed garden for the first time and the principals praise God for his mercy ("Slava," absolutely required in Russian opera).

One of the charms of an evening with Opera Bel Cantanti was revealed when the artistic director herself came down the stairs with a container of salsa that had been forgotten when the modest reception was set up. Katerina Souvorova may have baked the cookies, too, which were excellent. By my count, there is a handful of Tchaikovsky operas I have yet to hear. (Garth Trinkl will never forgive me if I do not mention Szymanowski's Dionysian opera King Roger, too.) I fully hope to get to know them thanks to Opera Bel Cantanti over the next several years.


Garth Trinkl said...

I'm more forgiving than you may think, Charles; though perhaps its nice too to have you think that I may not be!

Thanks for the link to the, apparently, excellent English translation to the libretto to Krol Roger (King Roger)! I'll read it more carefully at lunch time. (I believe the whole opera is about 70 or 75 minutes long; and that the three acts could, if necessary, be played on a 'minimal' unit set.)

Two other brief comments: Don't be so pessimistic that you won't ever hear a live performance of Rachmaninov's Aleko. I'll bet that you will catch it on one of your European jaunts; or that, given the leaps and bounds of D.C.'s classical music scene under yours and Jens tutelage, that it will be done again in the region before the next decade is out.

As to Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, I recall that Rostropovich and the NSO did it as a season finale about a dozen years ago -- probably "semi-staged", though minimally semi-staged, I can't now recall. I also can't recall whether it was Rostropovich's last official season, or whether it was as a laureate conductor the following season. (Recall, that he also recorded the Mussorgky Boris at the Kennedy Center.)

Maybe the NSO's new principal guest conductor Ivan Fischer could be assigned a role in bringing concert performances of operas to the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall each season. Frankly, his all-Mendelsohnn program for next season doesn't look that thrilling. (I'd take a real 18th, 19th, or early 20th c. opera over the Mendelsohnn "Dream" complete incidental music.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, thanks for the comments, as always, especially for your memory of past performances. We do our best to put fleas in the ears of the people leading arts organizations. Not that anyone actually listens to us, but we try.

Oksana Khadarina said...

"Slava," absolutely required in Russian opera


I disagree on this ...

Eugeny Onegin would have disagreed on this statement too... as well as Katerina Izmailova. :)

Charles T. Downey said...

Oksana, thank you for acknowledging that there are exceptions. I was only joking.