Piotr Tchaikovsky: Iolanta (1892)

Opera in one act. I chose this movie version because it includes titles that explain much of the action. It is shorter than a typical performance by around 15 minutes (the longest recording seems to be around 106 minutes, but this includes a lot of time that is not music), feel free to select a different version if you prefer. The opera premiered as half of a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s far more famous ballet The Nutcracker, but this little opera is amazing all on its own.

Running Time: 79 minutes.

PLOT: Iolanta is a blind princess living in southern France, although she doesn’t actually know either of these things about herself. The rest you can get from the titles in the video.



2.30: The Prelude is a mostly quiet affair with oboe dominating with a brief skid sidelining this before it goes back to oboe domination. The first scene however has a rather wonderful orchestral accompaniment ** as Iolanta and Marta her governess discuss why the servants and her father are here (Marta says out of duty, Iolanta because they are her friends), Iolanta wants to repay them for their affection, but there is something missing in her life (the love of a man who isn’t her father). She starts to cry and recognizes by touching that Marta is as well (but how does Marta know that she is crying without touching her eyes? she asks).  The music is upsetting her says one of her companions (odd, I don’t think it is upsetting in anyway), no not that says Iolanta, when the sun no longer warms (id.) have them come back. Now she wants to do nothing except arrange flowers.

7: Are eyes only for crying? What is it about the nightingales’ song? Iolanta’s air of sexual awakening **, although she hardly knows it yet, is rather touching.

14: The girls return with flowers and then there is a bedtime song for sleepy Iolanta in a canon rondo which are together probably the weakest point in the opera, but then taken up by the full female chorus it gets a little better *.

24: We meet Bertrand (Martha’s husband) who cautiously greets a new royal messenger, Almeric, who remarks on the beauty of the castle in a long recitative. Beauty is not something to be discussed around Iolanta, says Martha, she things daddy is a wealthy knight, not the king. The king arrives very quickly after his herald with the Moorish doctor Ibn-Hakia who tells the king to have faith in the works of Allah to a fine brass flourish, but the king is still afraid that she will forever live in darkness because of his sins in an okay but agonizing bass aria *.

28: Ibn-Hakia returns with his report, the king is excited, Iolanta can be cured, but at the cost of her learning first that she is blind. The king immediately rejects this, but then the Moorish doctor gives us a rather rhythmic explanation **: sight is not just experienced by the body, but also by the soul. No change on the king’s part, nor for the doctor either. Whoever tells Iolanta she is blind will be executed, the law stands.

36.30: We are introduced to Robert, Iolanta’s fiancee and his friend Vaudemont in a rather strong recitative foreshadowing something exciting is about to happen, and it does. Robert wants out of his marriage to Iolanta (remember, he doesn’t even know she is blind) and wants to marry another noblewoman named Mathilda. Robert’s aria is probably not the jewel of the entire score, but is at the very least the best number so far ***.

45: Vaudemont finds a secret entrance into Iolanta’s garden and falls madly in love with her upon seeing her laying asleep. She wakes up, and after asking who these two strange men are offers them refreshment, Robert runs off to find the other men in their party and Vaudemont confesses that he loves to Iolanta, who does not understand him. He offers to leave but first she must give him a red rose, but she keeps handing him white roses, “What is red?” she asks, somewhat terrified **. He realizes that she is blind, she becomes so afraid of having offended him, but where is he?

49: She wants to learn from him but he must speak to her. She becomes rather forlorn over his desertion of her. There isn’t an amazing melody going on but what is happening is so incredibly emotional ***, the words take precedence over the music, and they are incredibly effective.

52: Vaudemont explains the meaning of light and sight to Iolanta to an incredible ocean of melody ***.  Iolanta responds in equally amazing tones that border on the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin.

57: Everything is over, the cat is out of the bag so to speak, the king wants to kill Vaudemont for teaching her about light and that she is blind, Ibn-Hakia declares it is the girl’s salvation. But does Iolanta want to see? The king is won over by the doctor, but Iolanta must want to see in order to be cured **.

61: The king has an idea, and threatens to have Vaudemont executed if Iolanta is not cured, everyone is terrified and Iolanta asks her father why he plans on doing this. She asks Ibn-Hakia how painful the cure will be, claiming to be willing to suffer anything for her knight, and then she starts to make claims about light bordering on worship of light. She goes to get cured, the king admits that he never intended to execute Vaudemont, and the latter asks for Iolanta’s hand, which is denied him because she is engaged to another **.

68: Robert (the other, no duh) returns and at first seems to reject the pleas of Vaudemont to confess his love of Mathilda to the king, thus ending his engagement to Iolanta. The king promises Iolanta to Vaudemont, who is willing to die for her even if she remains blind **.

73: Iolanta can see! Explosive rejoicing greets the news. She doesn’t take the news that well though and freaks out **.

75: The finale, starts with Iolanta on a glorious melody *** as she is reintroduced to everyone in her life, including her father and Vaudemont. If this can’t warm your heart musically with its utter joy and sheer grace, nothing will.

Iolanta has the distinction of being one of the few non-comic operas that is genuinely joyful and in being so is something of a musical miracle. The title character herself is one of the most remarkably human characters in all of opera, and her beloved knight just as equally believable. We can feel as if we are either Iolanta or Vaudemont within different contexts and in an way that is rare in opera experience their joy and their pain as if we are actually them and not just as either observers or as fellow participants, but actually AS the characters. The music and the story can uplift in a way that is almost totally unique, and its message of hope, joy, and the beauty of nature and of love are so incredibly important, and yet horribly overlooked.  Apart from King Rene’s aria, the only not totally amazing music is to be found in the first 15 minutes or so of the opera, but even here the music is rather lovely. By the time we get to Robert’s aria, however, we are in A+ opera land and in spite of not always having an A+ tune we remain within that realm until the end of the opera. The best music would be the previous aria, the duet between Iolanta and Vaudemont in which he explains light to her, and the finale which is an apotheosis on par, and even more human and joyous than, that of The Sleeping Beauty. In spite of a couple of early B patches, Iolanta is definitely an A for the entire world and the light that shines upon it.

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