Tchaikovsky’s final opera, “Iolanta,” isn’t as well known as his earlier masterpieces, “Eugene Onegin” and “Queen of Spades,” its fairytale plot and 90-minute, one-act structure likely contributing to that obscurity. But it’s a beautiful, moving tale about a sheltered young woman who doesn’t know she’s blind until a suitor reveals it to her. He convinces her protective father to allow medical treatment, and, being cured, she marvels at the wonderful world she’s missed.
Superstar soprano Anna Netrebko has been crusading for “Iolanta” in the last few years with performances all around Europe. She’s now starring in the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever production, this recording being released to coincide with those performances.
There are several earlier recordings, but even conductor Valery Gergiev’s high-profile set from St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre doesn’t compare with this one’s visceral grip. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume supplies energetic momentum with the Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra in this live concert performance, vividly captured by the sound engineers with voices thrillingly close up.
Despite some criticisms about her forays into other operatic categories, Netrebko is in her element here, pouring out warm, emotion-laden phrases and glorious high notes in a dramatically nuanced characterization. Nine other cast members vary from capable to excellent.
The opera’s first half is pleasantly engaging, but once suitor Vaudémont (bright-voiced, powerful Sergey Skorokhodov) begins the radiant duet with Iolanta, the opera shifts into high gear, continuously building toward the huge anthem-like finale, so stirring it demands an instant replay.
Correspondent Roy C. Dicks