Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Opernstudio der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Alevtina Ioffe
Axel Ranisch (stage director)
rec. 2019, Cuvilliés Theatre, Munich
Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings BSOREC2003 Blu-ray 
Apart from Puccini’s carefully designed Trittico and the ubiquitous pairing of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, one-act operas generally have a very hard time of it making their way onto the stage. Producers and directors can have fun either by presenting two (rarely more) works which either complement each other or provide direct contrast, although for the sake of economy the partners chosen tend to employ casts that can be taken by the same singers. Sometimes, as in the recent Covent Garden pairing of Cav and Pag, the directors will even attempt to forge a link in the dramatic action between the two distinct operas while at the same time maintaining the musical integrity of the scores.
There was indeed a performance not long ago at one of the London music colleges which paired Stravinsky’s Mavra with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, so the idea of coupling these two Russian pieces is certainly not new. The Tchaikovsky opera began its life as part of a double bill with The Nutcracker, but since the latter broke away at an early stage to begin its dizzying career as an essential Christmas offering by ballet companies across the globe, its companion has been left a sad relict rarely performed or recorded despite the fact that, as Tchaikovsky’s final opera, the music is undoubtedly of the highest quality. By comparison the short Stravinsky neo-classical essay makes a jolly makeweight, consistently light-hearted in spirit and bubbling over with high jinks and no serious pretensions whatsoever. So far, so good. But what has been done here is not to play the two operas as a contrast, but to play them ‘simultaneously’ – as the philistine rich man in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos ordained for the entertainment of his guests before a firework display. That doesn’t of course mean literally playing both operas at the same time; but it does mean interleaving sections of one with the other to make a supposedly unified presentation. In the case of Ariadne, which derived originally from the scenario of the Molière play Le bourgeous gentilhomme, the shotgun wedding works simply because Strauss contrives to make it work that way. In this case the forced marriage is a catastrophic failure, despite a desperate attempt by Nikolaus Stenitzer in a seven-page essay in the booklet to contrive an over-arching theme based in Freudian psychology.
The scores are dovetailed in the following manner: first we hear the overture to Iolanta, then the opening scene of Mavra where the characters are viewed as puppets manipulated by the blind princess Iolanta. After that we hear the first two scenes of the Tchaikovsky opera, setting out the plot where the King is attempting to conceal her disability from his daughter. The characters from Mavra re-emerge for the central scene of the Stravinsky score, before we return to the courtship between Iolanta and the prince who discovers and reveals her blindness to her; and the cure effected by the doctor once she has gained self-awareness. After the end of the Tchaikovsky score, we belatedly get the overture to Mavra and then the final scene from Stravinsky on which the curtain descends.
It is of course possible to view Iolanta as a parable of teenage adolescence, where the unsuspecting blindness of the young girl is miraculously cured by her discovery of love in the shape of an understanding prince; David Pountney gave a similar interpretation to Dvorak’s Rusalka in his production for English National Opera many years ago. But here Axel Ranisch does not even attempt to pursue the metaphor to its inevitable conclusion; the miracle of the heroine’s cure is revealed to be an illusion, and the prince in a King-Lear moment blinds himself in order to share his wife’s affliction (all of this to a background of Tchaikovsky in his most triumphal mood, which just makes the composer seem totally heartless). Ranisch then second-guesses his conclusion by bringing back the characters from Mavra, who strip off their puppet guises which are then assumed by Iolanta and her prince, who thus regain their sight, in order to provide a happy ending where all the couples are able to consummate their loves. This might just about make dramatic sense in the context of a Freudian interpretation, but musically it is disastrous.
Both the scores have been subjected to drastic and substantial re-orchestration. The richness of the Tchaikovsky scoring (this was after all designed for the same forces as The Nutcracker) is reduced (by Richard Whilds) to chamber proportions which often sound simply unidiomatic, and persistently fail to respond to the dramatic events on the stage – the realisation by the prince that his beloved cannot see him is rendered feeble by the failure of the orchestral outburst at that moment to materialise. One might have suspected that the reduced orchestration was intended to allow the Tchaikovsky score to blend better with the Stravinsky (although that in itself would have been reprehensible) were it not for the fact that the latter score is similarly stripped down (this time by Paul Phillips) to the bare essentials of an onstage ensemble redolent more of cabaret performances of Kurt Weill. One cannot complain here of the loss of emotional impact (there is after all no emotion in the score to lose) but one can certainly grumble about the persistent mis-representation of Stravinsky’s sound-world; Mavra was not designed as a chamber work in the same way as, for example, The soldier’s tale.
All of this is doubly frustrating, in the first place because considered individually the production of each opera is rather well done. The puppets in Mavra, taken by singers with oversized heads, move convincingly and the lover concealed in disguise as a new ‘maid’ is given a quizzical fixed grin which produces sparks of real humour and even consideration. The blank faces of the other puppets – who lack pupils in their eyes, presumably in reference to Iolanta – are less expressive and the movements of Noa Beinart and Yulia Sokolik as the mother and her neighbour are somewhat clumsy. The action in Iolanta, on the other hand, is extremely realistic even down to the rich pre-Raphaelite mediaeval costumes, and the sets – especially the impressionistic forest which surrounds the castle – are extremely beautiful. It is a pity that, with their long hair and trailing cloaks, the King and the duke Robert look so similar on their first appearances as potentially to cause confusion; and again there are also dramaturgical problems when the King appears to be co-opted as a stagehand preparing the scene for the return to Mavra midway through the action, to which the only possible question can be – why?
The other reason for real frustration lies with the fact that trapped within this nonsensical farrago of a production are some performances of very real distinction. In the performance of Iolanta we are leagues removed from the iron-lunged and unsteady voices of Russian singers to which we have become accustomed over the years in these roles. Mirjam Mesak is delicate and smooth-toned as the titular princess, floating high notes with ethereal beauty and bringing a touching fragility to her depiction of her blindness. Long Long is strong-voiced as her lover – occasionally one suspects that he might have been in greater difficulties with Tchaikovsky’s original full-blooded romantic orchestration – but the real star on the male side is Markus Suihkonen as Iolanta’s father. He launches his arioso with a real sense of lyrical line, smoothly shading into the upper register of his beautifully produced bass voice that is miles away from the sometimes rough-and-ready sound of a Slavonic Bolshoi bass. Nearly as good, and with an addition of heroic metal, is Boris Prýgi as the Duke of Burgundy; and Oğulcan Yilmaz and Noa Beinart also come over well in supporting roles. Ranisch also introduces a prominent role for a silent character in the shape of Iolanta’s wheel-chair bound mother, who seems to assume some responsibility for her daughter’s blindness (she is described in the booklet cast list as “the patriarch”). Her silent-movie gestures do little to enhance proceedings.
Two of the same singers also appear in Mavra (with some quick costume changes) but the two lovers are taken by Anna El-Khashem and Freddie De Tommaso – the latter in a performance preceding his recent emergence into the realm of stardom, but already displaying a neatly turned tenor and a nicely gormless impersonation of the puppet when stripped of his costume. Again this is a performance whose musical pleasures go some way to compensation for the problems with the actual production itself. Alevtina Ioffe conducts well, although in Mavra she appears to let the onstage musicians go their own way, and occasional camera angles showing her in action in the fully-lit orchestra pit are sometimes distracting.
The presentation of the set itself is of the usual high standard we have come to associate with Bavarian State Opera, despite their drab and unattractively utilitarian covers: the lengthy booklet essay and synopsis come in both German and English, we are provided with full track listings and plentiful illustrations. Subtitles on screen come in Russian, German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.
One might perhaps express a hope, without much expectation of success, that someone sometime will take the bold decision to effect a divorce between the two operas here and let us have a presentation without the juxtaposition and superimposition enforced on us in this video. If that were to be done I suspect that my viewpoint would be substantially revised, since the performances of both of the individual operas on the double bill are of such a high standard; and if the composer’s original scoring could be restored, joy would be unbounded. As it is, the nature of the presentation here must surely rule it out of consideration except as an experimental curiosity.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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Mirjam Mesak (soprano) – Iolanta
Noa Beinart (soprano) – Marta
Long Long (tenor) – Vaudemont
Markus Suihkonen (bass) – King René
Boris Prýgi (baritone) – Robert
Oğulcan Yilmaz (baritone) – Ibn-Hakia
Caspar Singh (tenor) – Almerik
Oleg Davydov (bass) – Bertrand
Noa Beinart (mezzo-soprano) – Marta
Anais Majías (soprano) – Brigitte
Yulia Sokolik (mezzo-soprano) – Laura
Nora Bollmann (silent) – The patriarch
Anna El-Khashem (soprano) – Parasha
Freddie De Tommaso (tenor) – Vassili
Noa Beinart (mezzo-soprano) – Mother
Yulia Sokolik (mezzo-soprano) – Neighbour
Falko Herold (video design)
Michael Bauer (light design)
Nikolaus Stenitzer (dramaturg)
Filmed in HD 16.9 PCM stereo and DTS-MA 5.1