‘The refined product of a great artist’ – Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta

Article by Hugo Shirley

In late 1890 Tchaikovsky received a commission from Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theatres in St.  Petersburg, for a double bill: a two-act ballet and a one-act opera.  The ballet was The Nutcracker whose music for dancing confectionery and malevolent rodents represents many people’s first encounter with the composer.  A Christmas staple for most ballet companies, sections of the score were used in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and the famous March was transformed by B. Bumble and the Stingers into ‘Nut Rocker’, which topped the UK singles charts in 1962.  Given the popularity and wide dissemination of The Nutcracker, it is hard for us to imagine that it was the ballet’s companion piece, the delicate and seldom-performed Iolanta, that was the better received at the premiere in December 1892.  Ironically, since the opera’s plot revolves around its heroine’s blindness, Tchaikovsky complained that the ballet was hampered by a production that, if anything, was too visually sumptuous.

Dumas père’s version of E T A Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig formed the basis for the ballet scenario while Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest, fresh from his successful adaptation of Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades, was the natural choice to fashion a libretto for Iolanta from Henrik Hertz’s play, King René’s Daughter.  Written in 1845, this play was probably the most popular work by the Danish author.  Having been translated into most European languages, it achieved widespread popularity across the continent, not least in Victorian England, where the now forgotten composer Henry Smart published a ‘Cantata for female voices and piano accompaniment’ based on it in 1871.  The play had enough residual popularity in the 1880s to appear in The Russian Messenger, in a translation by Fyodor Miller, and it was there that Tchaikovsky happened upon it in 1883; he also saw it staged at Moscow’s Maly Theatre in the spring of 1888.  At the time of the opera’s premiere, the composer remembered how ‘this subject enchanted me because of its poetical quality, originality, and abundance of lyrical moments.  That was when I promised myself that some time I would set it to music.  Because of a variety of obstacles, it was only last year that I was able to carry out this resolve.’

Additional obstacles – internal and external, compositional and circumstantial – served further to prolong the actual process of writing the opera.  Having received the joint commission, Tchaikovsky started on The Nutcracker with little enthusiasm, writing bluntly to his brother Anatoly in March 1891 that ‘the main thing is to get rid of the ballet; as to the opera I am so fascinated by it that if I could have two weeks of peace I would be sure to finish it on schedule.’ A few weeks later, though, he wrote to Modest that he had ‘been making vigorous but vain efforts to work.  Nothing came out but muck and Nutcracker and King René’s Daughter turned into feverish nightmares.’ However, even though he complained of being ‘in such a state of mind that I have started to hate King René’s Daughter,’ he continued: ‘I feel I can make a masterpiece out of [it], but not in these circumstances.’ He had planned, unrealistically, to go on with the composition of the ballet while in Berlin and Paris en route to an American tour which he was to undertake in the late spring.  While Tchaikovsky suffered from his usual homesickness, this was compounded by the fact that just before he set sail he read in a newspaper of the death of his sister Sasha.

Already behind schedule, he resolved to put back the premiere of the double bill to the 1892-93 season and was in a far better state of mind returning to his old house in Maidanovo after the successful tour.  There he finished the sketch of Nutcracker on 6th July 1891 and moved on to the opera, starting, as had become customary for him, with the emotional core of the work – in this case the extended duet between Iolanta and Vaudémont.  Although this was a passage which he felt his brother had adapted with particular skill, doubts again crept in regarding the quality of what he was producing.  He wrote to Modest that ‘the music could have been magnificent! But it seems to me that my composition at that point is not up to standard.  What is disgusting is that I have started to repeat myself and a lot of this scene reminds me of The Enchantress!’  The candid exchange of opinion that characterises Tchaikovsky’s correspondence gives us an insight into the process of composition but has, in the case of Iolanta, also provided supposedly authoritative corroboration of an over-riding negative view of the opera.  And despite its initial success, the composer himself seems not to have believed that the work turned out as it should have.  It is telling that when it was to be performed with Rachmaninov’s one-act Aleko¸ the younger composer noted how ‘timidly and modestly, as if he were afraid I might refuse, he asked me if I would consent to have my work produced with one of his operas’.

In his previous two operas, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky portrayed a world closer to his own with the all-too-familiar ‘dehumanizing pressures of a metropolitan society’, as David Brown puts it.  Composing the final scene of The Queen of Spades in Florence in March 1890, he confided to his diary how he ‘wept terribly when Hermann breathed his last’.  Iolanta was never likely to provoke a similarly intense  emotional response and the gentle, fairy-tale atmosphere of the work presented Tchaikovsky with new compositional challenges.  The first of these was to conjure up the world of restricted beauty of the opening.  Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in his memoirs that this scene was ‘composed upside down: music suitable for strings had been given to woodwind, and vice-versa… the introduction, for instance, scored for some unknown reason for wind alone.’ This negative assessment was no doubt coloured by the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov’s own opera-ballet Mlada had recently flopped at the Mariinsky and, unlike Iolanta, enjoyed neither the approval of the Tsar nor the advocacy of Medea and Nikolai Figner who, after great success as Lisa and Hermann in The Queen of Spades, created the roles of Iolanta and Vaudémont.  Rimsky-Korsakov obtusely ignored the fact that the scoring of the Introduction for low woodwind is an obvious and effective evocation of the darkness of Iolanta’s world.  One biographer has even gone so far as to see the Introduction as an inversion and parody of Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, an opera Tchaikovsky had heard in Berlin in late 1882.  However, the mysterious garden of the first scene could actually be seen as more closely resembling the isolated Montsalvat of Parsifal, where the knights of the Grail inhabit a world shielded from the destructive power of female sexuality.

In her own isolated realm, Iolanta leads a charmed life of beauty.  Unlike the water-nymph heroines of Undine (in the operas by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Lortzing, and Tchaikovsky’s second, lost opera) and Rusalka (Dvořák’s opera based partly on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid), she is human but is similarly excluded from living a full life.  Uncomfortably for this day and age, it is her blindness that is characterised as preventing her from being human and the King’s well-meaning desire to keep her ignorant of her condition is only strengthened by a father’s natural concern to maintain a daughter’s purity and innocence.  He seems to know that, like the creatures of fairy tales who have to renounce their magic powers or immortality in exchange for humanity, Iolanta’s cure will remove her forever from the safe, aestheticized world he has created for her, exposing her to harsh reality.  Still set within the lightless confines of her internalised world, Tchaikovsky masterfully portrays in Iolanta’s first aria feelings of emptiness and the stirring of some unknown desire – an appetite not satisfied by the diet of well-meaning pity she receives from her entourage.  This opening darkness turns to despair in the King’s noble aria, whose strongly rising melodic line must have provided a satisfying counterpoint to the descending-scale theme of The Nutcracker’s grand Pas de deux.  The arrival of the Moorish doctor, Ibn-Hakia, marks the first step towards Iolanta’s recovery.  One of a series of operatic doctors and mystics, Ibn-Hakia is distinguished by not being a quack.  While, for example, Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore flogs off wine as a magic love potion, this is a doctor and man of the world who is genuine in his desire to help.  Accordingly, Tchaikovsky gives him music that, although gently filled with the colours of the East, avoids cheap orientalism and is characterised by genuine nobility.  Ibn-Hakia’s diagnosis that Iolanta’s condition is partly psychosomatic leads to a straightforward series of associations by which we can deduce that it is the latent power of Iolanta’s love, the only thing that can produce the necessary desire central to Ibn-Haika’s treatment, that will bring about her cure.

With their formulaic and diametrically opposed romantic ideals, Robert and Vaudémont stumble into the action unawares as further agents of Iolanta’s recovery.  They appear initially as something of an odd couple and seem almost to be treated by Tchaikovsky in comedic terms.  Yet although shortly after he finished scoring the opera Tchaikovsky confessed to his friend Fedotov that ‘medieval dukes and knights and ladies captivate my imagination but not my heart’, he is expert in creating for these two knights’ musical languages that movingly reflect their different views of love.  The opening, sensuous surge of Robert’s aria, filled with visual imagery of his dark-eyed, voluptuous Mathilde, is followed by Vaudémont’s heartfelt and chaste riposte – added at a later stage at the request of Nikolai Figner.  This leads into Iolanta and Vaudémont’s duet: starting tenderly and tentatively, it is soon shot through with the Fifth Symphony’s ‘Fate’ motif, leaving little doubt as to the opera’s outcome.  A flaw, then, in Modest’s libretto might be that dramatically speaking the path to Iolanta’s cure is too unhindered and that the compressed format of a one-act opera demands too much in the way of rushed tying-up of the narrative strands.  However, Tchaikovsky’s mastery is always evident in those ‘lyrical moments’ that abound – the very moments that had attracted him to the play on the first reading.

Although some of the scoring looks forward to the Pathétique and the voices are, in a nod to Wagnerian techniques, occasionally subordinated to the orchestral writing, it is probably too much to describe Iolanta as representing a conscious ‘late style’ in Tchaikovsky’s operatic output.  Yet the opera has had several champions, not least Gustav Mahler who conducted it in Hamburg just sixteen days after the St. Petersburg premiere.  In April 1900 Mahler brought Iolanta to the Imperial Opera in Vienna, shortly after his appointment there as Director.  With customary zeal he drilled his singers to produce a performance as dramatically convincing as possible and insisted, for example, that his Iolanta be blindfolded throughout the rehearsals.  Although the performances were more a succès d’estime than a run-away triumph, they made a favourable impression on the influential critic Eduard Hanslick.  With an insight for once uncoloured by Vienna’s furious musical infighting, he wrote perceptively of the heroine as ‘more a musical soul than a dramatic character’ and described the opera as ‘the refined product of a great artist rather than a masterpiece or an effective stage piece’.  Few will argue that Iolanta packs a dramatic punch on a par with its heavy-weight predecessors, but it remains a hauntingly beautiful and affecting operatic swan song.

Hugo Shirley is currently involved in research at King’s College London for a PhD on the operas of Strauss and Hofmannsthal.  He is Deputy Editor of the classical music website, MusicalCriticism.com.