in: Reviews

May 24, 2012

Big Opera, Too-Small Stage: Iolanta at Makor

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On May 22nd, at the Center Makor in Brighton, the Boston Vocal Arts Studio presented Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Iolanta. This work is not performed nearly as often as the composer’s other, more well-known operas, and this performance, part of the International Rachmaninoff Russian Music Festival, demonstrated to the full house of listeners what they are missing. It was also an object lesson in the dramatic difficulties of transferring a work written for one type of venue to a rather different one.

The story of Iolanta is presented in this piece as a fairy tale, complete with king, princess, knight, frolicking virgins, and a blatantly patriarchic moral. The libretto, written by the composer’s younger brother, Modest, was clearly conceived for a voluminous venue intended to house Grand Opera: premiered at the Mariinksi, the work is set up as a “numbers” piece, in which every character gets a big aria, and the exposition/back story is often hurriedly and awkwardly presented in between the indulgent solos. Such a design played well to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s strengths but also to his weaknesses, creating a somewhat inconsistent whole: He was one of the best tunesmiths of the day, so the arias are very satisfying. However, his weakness as a composer (vocal music or not) was that he had great difficulty making material that comes in between the main melodic events anywhere near as interesting; in Iolante, the expository dialogs, monologs, etc., are simply dull.

The biggest challenge that faced BVAS in this production was presenting a large-scale opera in a chamber opera setting. Some of it worked, some of it did not. The relatively small stage held a lovely all-white courtyard with stairs to a balcony, sparsely streaked and dotted by the reds, whites, and greens of roses and vines. The scene, designed by Yefim Massarskiy, served well, both as a stage set and as a metaphor for the title character’s blindness and innocence, and could easily be taken in by the audience in close quarters. On the other hand, the costumes, gorgeous though they were in their rich colors and sparkles, would have been far more effective at a greater viewing distance; close-up, they looked rather garish. Another issue was that, given the constraints of the hall, the orchestra had to be dramatically reduced from the original scoring of full symphony orchestra to a small ensemble of 20 players. While the brass and winds were a little overexposed at times in this configuration, it is a tribute to conductor Sergei Khanukaev, concertmaster Stanislav Antonevich, and Tchaikovsky’s wonderful sense of string writing that the ensemble, even with about a tenth of the usual symphonic strings, sounded so lush.

The vocal performances were all quite good, though the music almost forced the singers to sing as if they were in a large opera house soaring over an 80-piece orchestra, resulting in an odd imbalance of energies. The acting was, in general, very stilted, the movements blocky, the gestures unnatural. The one very notable exception was baritone Kevin Kees , whose voice and stage presence were a couple cuts above the rest. If light could shine through wavy glass made of dark velvet, the result would be the visual equivalent of Kees’s vocal color, a feature that gave his Duke Robert a delightful boldness. Still, even he looked as if he was unsure what to do with himself physically on stage. In his and the other singers’ defense, though, the pacing and aesthetic of the work just seems to demand the type of deliberate movement that one would see on a stage five times as large and five times farther away.

In fact, the entire experience was somewhat disorienting, like those old B-movies in which dinosaurs are played by lizards in close-up on a miniature set: the scaling is just off enough to create a strangely fascinating cognitive dissonance. In a way, though, that sensation added an exciting layer to this performance, a generally very fine one of a second-rate though charmingly over-the-top work of Romantic music-theater.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

7 Comments

  1. My experience of visiting the production of Iolanta on Tuesday was not even closed to be “disorienting”. For sure no one would refute the “B-level” production of the whole event. Still, I consider that Iolanta was a wonderful experience. You see, besides all of that inability of the juvenile orchestra to hold the tune and King Rene acting as he just shoplifted bagels in supermarket there was something else during that eving. It was unadulterated enthusiasm of participants and their love to the work and to the event itself. The whole event had very “homey” feeling and I very fast got comfortable with everything what was not right during that production. People were trying to do their best within the logistic and financial boundaries and I have suspicion that they all were very much purely enthusiasm-driven.

    Which brings a larger subject – the proliferation of minor operatic works and ethnic artistic pride. We have in Boston zillion ethnic communities and many of them have deep cultural roots and artistic capacities.  Russians came up with that Iolanta production – the production that normal Bostonian would never seen in his/her life. How about other ethnic theaters? Would it be great to see once-twice a year the similar semi-amateur production of rarely-played German, Czech, Polish, Yiddish, Georgian, Iranian, French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Korean and even, oh my Got, … English operas or operettas?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — May 24, 2012 at 12:34 pm

  2. The Iolanta performance on May 22nd was the second cast’s performance consisting mainly of students or recent music school’ graduates. The first cast which sung on May 20 was anything but amateur and involved opera singers of note and extensive experience with singing in major opera houses like Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and Covent Garden. Below is the review that I wrote for this performance.

    A.M. “>Tchaikovsky’s last opera graces the audience with exquisite singing.”

    Whether you speak Russian or not, whether you’re into opera or not but if you simply like classical music and a good show then you shouldn’t have missed last Sunday’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Iolanta. Unfortunately it’s not often that we hear an opera performance of such caliber here in Boston.

    The production took place in the main hall of the Temple Bnai Moshe on 1845 Commonwealth Avenue hosted by something called Center Makor. For a little while now Center Makor has been popularizing Russian music and Russian Art in the Boston area, sometimes serving a role of sort of a local Russian Community Center. The opera was staged as a part of the 2nd International Rachmaninov Russian Music Festival by a troupe called Boston Vocal Arts Studio led by bass-baritone Alexander Prokhorov who was also singing in the production.

    The décor was fine. When I walked in I found the stage full of white. There was white deck, and there was white ladder going to white balcony. It was a traditional setting, charming, tasteful and unimposing.

    I also thought singer’s clothing quite easy on the eye, in particularly the one of the women choir. All ladies wore loose airy green dresses with one wearing red. On one hand, again the clothing was unimposing enough so not to distract one from the opera itself, on the other hand it provided for certain country feel.

    For about half of the singers Russian language was native. The rest obviously worked long and hard on their diction because practically all of them came out with much better Russian diction then what I’m used to hearing when I listen to the Russian opera at the Met. That’s right, even from the big-name stars.

    Iolanta was Tchaikovsky’s last opera. It’s a one-act work about the blind princess with overprotective father who puts her in the remote castle so she’d never find out that she indeed is blind. She is also betrothed to the prince that also doesn’t know of her handicap and that is in addition to him being in love with someone else. The prince with a friend accidentally stumble upon the hidden castle, his friend falls in love with Iolanta who at last discovers that she’s been missing her sight, melodrama ensues, and with help of her love for prince’s friend, and visiting Arab doctor Iolanta acquires her sight so in the end everybody marry whoever they want to marry and live happily ever after.

    The title part was sung by Dina Kuznetsova, a singer who’s been making her presence known on international circuit while singing at various festivals as well as sometimes showing up at the Met. I initially found out of Ms. Kuznetsova’s existence by reading a raving review of her singing Tatyana in Eugene Onegin in Opera News magazine. This was my first and hopefully not the last opportunity to actually listen to her live.

    Miss Kuznetsova sure is a mature singer and I don’t mean age-wise. She played her part perfectly, easily keeping up with ever-changing emotional complexities of her character: sometimes giggling, sometimes crying, sometimes pleading and then going directly into something exhilarating and joyful. Acting wise there is little doubt that Ms. Kuznetsova pulls you into the plot. Furthermore what a voice! Smooth, strong, nuanced, able to easily navigate through this reasonably demanding part. Sometimes she keeps it reserved as though building the anticipation, and then all of the sudden she unleashes, making an obvious play for the audience and just lets it loose. If she was ever out-of-control I didn’t notice it. Initially in the very beginning of the opera I was under impression that Ms. Kuznetsova was kind of warming herself up but not the first scene of the opera had passed when she came fully into her own, instantly drawing me into the thick of things.

    However, despite her nearly perfect singing Ms. Kuznetsova was not the main event. On that night that honor belonged to a substitute. Elias Notus who was initially slotted to sing the part of Prince René apparently got sick and in the last minute’s scramble the troupe brought aboard one Mikhail Svetlov, a veteran Bolshoi basso with many major label recordings under his belt

    who is a regularly singing at Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden and other “minor” opera houses of the world. What did they or he or she had to do in order to attract the singer of such a caliber I have no idea. More better for us, the audience.

    Wow… From the first note Mr. Svetlov utters, you know this performer is on a different level. I’m not sure about Mr. Svetlov’s acting. I’m sure it was fine. I just wasn’t paying attention. There are few singers out there who have such a magnetic timbre that when they begin to sing one really stops paying attention at anything else they do. Mr. Svetlov is that. Svetlov is tall, imposing man in possession of a deep bass in the best traditions of Mark Reizen, Ettore Bastianini and Boris Christoff. He is Not only does Svetlov commands attention every time he is on stage, he also makes you impatiently wait for his reappearance every time he is not present. Did Mr. Svetlov actually steal the show? I don’t know. But was he the main topic of conversation in the audience after the show? You betcha.

    The rest of the cast was also very much up to par. Vaudémont, Iolanta’s prince charming was sung by Adam Klein, a solid competent tenor. Klein played a truly valiant knight, his Russian diction was not a problem to my ear (and believe me that’s a big thing!). Klein’s tenor is powerful, confident, gloriously glossy, with certain reckless abandon about it so when in the course of the plot he says he is ready to die for this or for that, you actually believe him. Similar youthful presence could be applied to David Gvinianidze in the role of Vaudémont’s friend, Prince Robert, Iolanta’s initial groom to be whose main responsibility is to sing the most famous aria of the opera, if you will its “hit” – “Who can possibly be compared to my Matilda?!”. Gvinianidze’s masculine determined baritone literally breezed through the role. Gvinianidze also sung the role in the way that I like Robert’s part to be sung. Not with deeper bassier baritone that sometimes makes one feel that Robert is much older of the character then he really should be but rather with lighter, almost tenorish but still not quite a tenor of a timbre. And the last but not least, the troupe’s commander Alexander Prokhorov, the man to whom opera lovers probably owe this beautiful experience was as ever competent, as ever solid, and as ever dependable in the role of Ibn-Hakia. This is not the first time that I hear Mr. Prokhorov sing and I already grew used to thinking that if Mr. Prokhorov is a part of the production then at least his role will be taken care of to my satisfaction. Mr. Prokhorov has a great-sounding voice, and there is always certain nonchalant determination about the way he handles his parts, kind of “not a problem, I’m here. Everything will be taking care of”. I guess, it sounds especially convincing when one sings a part of the doctor which Mr. Prokhorov does here.

    А note on one of the minor parts: David Wadden that sung small part of Bertrand has an amazingly beautiful and convincingly deep basso and in my humble opinion with a little bit of work and a little bit of luck, there is great future in opera that awaits him. Something tells me that one day I’ll be reading about Mr. Wadden in Opera News and listening to Mr. Wadden singing the part of The Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo.

    The accompanying orchestra was competent. The overture did make me worry some but what followed proved my worries unfounded. Conductor, Sergei Khanukaev always had a good grip on the proceedings.

    Alexander Maly

    Comment by Alexander Maly — May 24, 2012 at 10:52 pm

  3. Dear Romy, what gives you the credentials to judge the orchestra as harshly as you did?  Read again what Prof. Schnauber wrote about them.  The Boston Globe, in their review of this production, also saved their highest praise for the orchestra, which they said “performed miracles”.  Note that unlike the singers, the orchestra was the same for both shows.  And you can check out the bios of its leaders, conductor Sergei Khanukaev and concertmaster Stanislav Antonevich, on the opera’s website (http://www.russianmusicfest.ru/events/opera-production-2).  They are anything but amateurs.

    Comment by Dina Goldberg — May 30, 2012 at 1:52 am

  4. What credentials does one need to have to know that the orchestra was indeed no BSO?

    Comment by Samuel Goldman — May 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm

  5. Dear, Dina. I guess I will continue to live in ignorance and won’t bless my existence by familiarizing myself with neither Mr. Schnauber’s commentaries nor with Boston Globe’s “review”.  I stopped to listen the orchestra after the middle of the opening overture as I wanted to be in a good positive state of mind. Replying your question I do assure you that have a lot of credentials. I am a state-licensed highly-certified plumber and just went over highly advanced fellowship that grants me the rights to install high-velocity drainage system in hospital’s operational rooms and steamship’s toilets.  If you were there during the Iolanta performance, heard the orchestra’s play and feel a need to defend the quality of the orchestra, bringing the musician credential as the evidence, than I can inform you that you will be very valuable asset in my high-pressure drainage team. At least then the quality of your contribution will be clearly sensible and no one will have a need to bring a credentialed witness to evaluate how fast the BS is draining.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — May 31, 2012 at 7:37 am

  6. Tom Schnauber’s review.  He didn’t say anything about the
    emotion-generatiing power of this performance.  As someone described, some
    of the voices were finer on Sunday, but I was there on Tuesday and I
    wept several times.  A review comes to a performance with a certain
    mindset, and his was unromantic.  I’d have to see his other reviews to
    see if this man has a heart when he sees something he really likes.

    Interesting that another reviewer said the orchestra performed a
    miracle on Sunday, whereas you saw flaws…. and on Tuesday, the concertmaster said the players lacked some energy when he wasn’t on top of them.  I
    sent him the link to the last 7 minutes of the recording, and he
    commented that it sounded better than he thought it did as they
    performed it.

    It highly depends who you talk to, who is writing.   The reviewer
    may have been sitting in the front row and found the costumes garish,
    but I was sitting far away and they looked good, and I would not want to
    have been farther away.   He does mention an imbalance of energy with
    the string body 10 times as small as usual but with a larger proportion
    of winds, relatively.   I know what he means.  You can’t have 0.3 times
    one French horn.   I said that the voices sometimes obscured the
    orchestra, because the voices are what my ear heard more of where I was
    sitting…. and that was okay with me.  It was the story, not the
    orchestral accompaniment that were important to me.

    As ornate and challenging the violino part was, and we need it to be
    handled competently, it is the story, the “whole” of the singing plus
    story-telling, plus scenery, plus dramatic direction, that makes the
    day, and if that all shines forth, we don’t need to focus on the
    orchestra role in isolation.   On the other hand, if the orchestra gives
    discomfort to the singers, they can’t do their best.   If I were in the
    orchestra, I would be focused more on “HOW DID THE ORCHESTRA DO” but
    when I sit in the audience as a civilian, I saw the totality and was not
    so fussy about the orchestra role.   It was a good “whole” on Tuesday,
    in my opinion. *

    Comment by Jagan Nath Khalsa — June 19, 2012 at 7:33 am

  7. To Romy the Cat,
    I object to your snide retort to Dina. “BS draining” etc. is not discourse I like to see in BMI comments. It has overtones of the kind of fights you see in commentary on youtube.com and diminishes my respect for you as a reviewer, who gave otherwise thoughtful comments. “Juvenile orchestra” and “shoplifting bagels” doesn’t inform me either. I was there only on Tuesday myself, and these descriptions don’t illuminate for me what you were actually hearing. I have been a an orchestra player, and a participant in other productions of BVAS. I understand that this is a company still on the rise. Yes, they are limited by budget and collective experience just right now. They can understand good constructive criticism …. but you wielding clever insults just makes tempers rise and doesn’t help them or readers who truly want to understand how it went.

    Comment by Jagan Nath Khalsa — June 19, 2012 at 10:24 am

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