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.