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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 18 APRIL 2016 — An outstanding new production of Tchaikovsky’s 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 Tchaikovsky’s 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" ballet.
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.

Tcherniakov’s 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 Hoffman’s tale and closely directing Arthur Pita, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Edouard Lock in creating the choreography for the ballet to ensure the atmosphere he wanted.

Alexander Tsymbalyuk (far right) in Iolanta
Photo: Agathe-Poupeney

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 Marie’s birthday party to form a large bourgeois drawing-room. (It’s no longer Christmas, and the young heroine is no longer named Clara). Iolanta, we realise, was a show put on in honour of Marie’s 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 Tcherniakov’s directives evoking the Christmas scene in Bergman’s 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 Marie’s house is destroyed. The décor and visual effects are as unexpected as they are spectacular.

Marie’s nightmares in this version are not of rats and toy soldiers, but of explosions and the end of the world as Edouard Lock’s 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 Lock’s and Cherkaoui’s steps become less important than the extraordinary lighting effects accompanying Tchaikovsky’s 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
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

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.  Lock’s choreography culminates with a breathtaking solo for Alice Renavand, Marie’s 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 Nutcracker
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 parent’s 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, Tchaikovsky’s music glorious, while the décor and visual effects surpassed everything seen at the opera these past two years.

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.

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