When Tchaikovsky's Iolanta has its Metropolitan Opera premiere on January 26 in a double bill with Bart‹k's Bluebeard's Castle, it won't be the first time the one-act opera will share the stage with another work. In fact, the tradition dates all the way back to Iolanta's 1892 world premiere in St. Petersburg, when it was paired with another Tchaikovsky creation being presented to the public for the first time: none other than The Nutcracker. The composer had been commissioned by the Mariinsky Theatre to produce a one-act opera and a short ballet for a single evening, and it may come as something of a surprise that, at the end of that first night, Iolanta received a heartier response from the audience and critics than the ballet did (an assessment with which Tchaikovsky himself agreed).
Today, of course, The Nutcracker is iconic, having dominated the world's stages for generations, while Iolanta, though admired for the extraordinary beauty of Tchaikovsky's score, occupies space on the operatic fringe, produced only occasionally (mainly when a star soprano shows interest in the title role). All that could change this month, though, when Mariusz Treliński's widely praised new production premieres at the Met, with Anna Netrebko as Iolanta, Piotr Beczala as Count Vaud_mont, the man who loves her, and Valery Gergiev on the podium. Maestro Gergiev will also conduct Treliński's new vision for Bluebeard's Castle, starring Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko, presiding over one of the more intriguing operatic pairings in recent memory.
"Both operas are fairy tales with a tint of fantasy, and such stories usually have a deeper level," says director Treliński. "The thing that fascinated me about these stories was that both looked at the situation of women in the shadow of a very strong, dominant male figure." In the case of Iolanta, this dynamic is represented by the mythical King Ren_, who keeps his beautiful blind daughter under lock and key, sheltering her so completely from the outside world that she remains unaware that she suffers from blindness, the concept of sight never having been explained to her. In Bluebeard's Castle, the heroine, Judith, seeks out the mysterious Bluebeard, willfully entering into a charged relationship with a man who may or may not be a murderer. The outcomes of each story are markedly different.
"Iolanta ends with the girl freeing herself from her possessive father. She experiences great love with her prince: it's a classic happy ending," Treliński explains. "In Bluebeard's Castle, the situation is exactly the opposite. Judith abandons her family, her fianc_, her peaceful existence to come to a suspicious, deadly place. Why would one give up all that is dear and beautiful to enter into such a strange relationship with such a dark figure? What kind of force pushes us to such a confrontation? For me, it is about the intricacies of human sexuality."
The shadowy undercurrents of each opera led Treliński to film noir for inspiration, particularly Hitchcock's 1940 film version of Rebecca. For Treliński, both operas lend themselves to cinematic treatment, and he and his set designer, Boris Kudlicka, have developed a largely black-and-white mise-en-scne that both refers to 1940s films and allows the two heroines to stand out from their backgrounds, thereby heightening their sense of isolation. Coincidentally, B_la Balšzs, the author of Bluebeard's libretto, was a famous film critic of the early 20th century, who felt strongly that cinema should go beyond reality and enter the realm of poetry; Treliński, similarly, has worked to devise an atmospheric setting that suggests deeper truths simmering below the surface of the story.
"The 1940s were the years of the Hays Code, which didn't allow the open expression of sexual or erotic themes," Treliński says, referring to the censorship guidelines in play in Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century. "As a result, almost every frame of those films is saturated with suppressed eroticism. These thriller films were actually about strong passions, about yearning for desire, but the censors didn't allow it to be shown explicitly. It's a similar trick here: we're using this film convention to tell the story of an attraction that is stronger than we are."
In the case of Tchaikovsky, this idea is especially apt. Observers have long discussed the composer's largely suppressed homosexuality as a key driver of his artistic production. Surely, the story of Iolanta, who is literally kept blind to love, resonated with him, as he continually struggled to come to terms with his sexuality, even going so far as to embark on a misguided marriage that lasted less than three months. Tchaikovsky was not destined to love women: except the fictional ones who appeared in his work. "I am in love with the subject of Iolanta," he wrote to his brother, Modest, who crafted the opera's libretto. He first became smitten when he saw a brilliant young Russian actress, Elena Leshkovskaya, portray the role in King Ren_'s Daughter, the Henrik Hertz play on which the opera is based. His passionate enthusiasm for the story and its heroine continued throughout the writing of the work, during which time he continually fell in and out of love with Iolanta, depending on the state of his progress.
If Leshkovskaya excited Tchaikovsky, surely Netrebko would as well. The Russian diva has already delivered one legendary performance this season at the Met when she triumphed as Lady Macbeth, and the odds are good for a second. When Netrebko sang Iolanta in St. Petersburg in 2013 (in a similar production, also under Gergiev), the New York Times declared that she "was born to sing these impassioned lyrical lines ... near the height of her powers in the title role." Iolanta will allow Met audiences to experience another side of her formidable artistry, in a role that's much more internal, more psychologically nuanced, and less outwardly flashy than Lady Macbeth.
"I think that all great works of art are attempts to discover the truth, to understand who we are," Treliński says. "For me, directing an opera is always an attempt to understand the mysteries that surround us, the mysteries of love, of contact, of longing to be together: and of the inevitable impossibility that hinders our efforts."
Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle open on January 26 and will be seen live in cinemas worldwide on February 14.