By Patricia Boccadoro
PARIS, 18 APRIL 2016 An outstanding new production of
Tchaikovskys Iolanta/Casse-Noisette was presented at the Palais
Garnier in March, staged and revisited by the award-winning Russian
director, Dimitri Tcherniakov. Sonia Yonsheva, the radiant Bulgarian
soprano in the role of the princess Iolanta, illuminated Piotr
Tchaikovskys last opera, while Paris Opera étoiles, Alice
Renavand and Stephane Bullion sublimated the choreographies of Edouard
Lock and Sidi larbi Cherkaoui respectively in an exciting contemporary
albeit bewildering version of the traditional "Christmas"
Tchaikovsky had been commissioned to create the
double work for the Russian Imperial theatre, entrusting the libretto of
the opera to his brother, Modest, who based it on the play, The
Daughter of King René by Henrik Hertz. The creation was premiered at
the Mariinsky in St Petersburg in 1892, just one year before he died, but
despite the individual popularity of the works, linked by the splendour of
the partitions, they have never been programmed together since.
Tcherniakovs avowed ambition is to stage all the lesser known Russian
operas in Western Europe, particularly those he had known as a child, and
so for some time he had been searching for a work to complement
Iolanta, an opera too short for a full evening programme. Aware
of the difficulties inherent in coupling it with Nutcracker but
finding no other suitable alternative, he did not hesitate upon
discovering that the Russian composer had created the two works
simultaneously, even scribbling down parts of each in the same notebook.
He launched into his project, writing his own vision of Hoffmans tale and
closely directing Arthur Pita, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Edouard Lock in
creating the choreography for the ballet to ensure the atmosphere he
Alexander Tsymbalyuk (far right) in
The evening began with Iolanta, the story of the princess who
lives on a distant estate protected from reality, unaware that she is
blind. No one is allowed, on pain of death, to speak of her handicap.
Ignorant of the world around her, of light, colour and sunshine, she lives
with her entourage. One day her father arrives with a renowned doctor who
claims she could be cured but only if she recognizes her blindness and has
the will to see. His visit coincides with that of Robert, Duke of Burgundy
to whom she has been engaged since birth, but whose heart lies elsewhere.
However, Robert is accompanied by Vaudémont who falls instantly in love
with the beautiful girl, realizing she is sightless when she gives him a
white rose instead of the red one he requested. On his description of the
wonderful world around her, Iolantha begins to yearn for the gift of
sight, to go from darkness to light, to truth, life and love. She obtains
it in the only happy-ever-after opera Tchaikovsky created.
The décor and staging of the opera is lovely as it opens in a cream and
white, aristocratic home in pre-revolutionary Russia, set in the middle of
the stage. Yoncheva, incandescent and moving, shines at the centre,
surrounded by a remarkable cast including Alexander Tsymbalyuk, the tall,
dramatically powerful Ukranian bass in the role of King René, her father.
Larger than life and with his deep rugged tones he strode around the
stage, dominating events. Praise also to the insolent game of Robert,
interpreted with gusto by the Moldavian baritone, Andrei Jilihovschi.
However, beyond the excellence of the interpreters, the strength of the
creation lay in the continuity of the dramatic and musical themes. With
the astonishing realization that she can see, and with the blessing of her
father for her union with Vaudémont, instead of applause at the end of the
opera preceding an expected intermission, there was a single fluid,
unhurried movement as the Russian living-room slid to the rear of the
stage while the sides opened up upon Maries birthday party to form a
large bourgeois drawing-room. (Its no longer Christmas, and the young
heroine is no longer named Clara). Iolanta, we realise, was a
show put on in honour of Maries birthday. The conception of thus linking
the two works into a whole was brilliant.
From the five choreographers initially planned to collaborate on the
choreography for The Nutcracker, only two stayed in the running,
with a sixth, the Portuguese Arthur Pita, invited at what must have been
very short notice. Following Tcherniakovs directives evoking the
Christmas scene in Bergmans Fanny and Alexandre, Pita
choreographed the opening party festivities with its innovative musical
chairs and games at which Robert and Vaudémont are both present, but when
night falls, the tension mounts with the choreography of Edouard Lock
where the banal becomes violent. At the same time that the people at the
party turn to attack Vaudémont, there is a violent detonation and Maries
house is destroyed. The décor and visual effects are as unexpected as they
Maries nightmares in this version are not of rats and toy soldiers,
but of explosions and the end of the world as Edouard Locks choreography,
with its jerky, impassive robotic movements, takes over the scene.
Darkness falls, and everywhere is covered with falling ash. There are no
floating snowflakes but rather a wild storm with lumps of falling ice and
sleet. The change of scenery is stupefying, and both Locks and
Cherkaouis steps become less important than the extraordinary lighting
effects accompanying Tchaikovskys resplendent score.
As the effects of the hurricane abate, Marie searches for Vaudémont,
(alias the prince), but is lost in a haunted forest inhabited by wild
creatures. A giant bat flies past and a hyena bares its teeth
threateningly through the trees in the jungle. A horrific hippopotamus
creature lumbers close.
Alice Renavand in The Nutcracker
However, she is fearless in her quest, notwithstanding the fantasies
and visions that cross her mind as she wanders into a clearing crowded
with giant-sized toys, all with frozen smiles and open eyes on plastic
faces. Locks choreography culminates with a breathtaking solo for
Alice Renavand, Maries mother, who would have one believe that Lock is
one of the greatest choreographers around. Her interpretation of his
mechanical yet expressive whiplash choreography is phenomenal.
The 'Waltz of the Flowers', if one may call it that, was
choreographed by Sidi larbi Cherkaoui who explained that Dmitri
Tcherniakov met each of them individually to insist on the tragic side of
the story, how it was about nightmares rather than dreams, darkness and
not light, and how each image reflected the fears of our grand-parents,
parents, and ourselves, but in such a creation as this, the exact
coherence of the story-line and choreography are almost secondary to the
atmosphere and quality of the production.
Marine Ganio and Stéphane Bullion in The
Photo: Agathe Poupeney
Nevertheless, in the grand pas de deux, étoile
Stéphane Bullion partnered Marine Ganio, a credible Marie, magnificently.
The pas de deux was reminiscent of two ice skaters hurtling
through space, airy and buoyant, with Bullion lifting Ganio as
effortlessly as a feather. He imbued what otherwise might have been seen
as an acrobatic rather than danced pas de deux with grace and elegance.
All too soon, the 4-hour work came to an end as a great ball of fire
irradiated the sky, drawing closer and closer, engulfing all the stage,
until Marie awakens in her parents home, and an enthralled audience was
smacked back into reality.
What a pleasure it was to see a truly new creation with a full
orchestra conducted with verve and passion by Alain Altinoglu and with the
choirs of the National Theatre of Paris. The casts for both the lyric
opera and dance were superb, Tchaikovskys music glorious, while the décor
and visual effects surpassed everything seen at the opera these past two
Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and
senior editor at Culturekiosque.