I have recently got this recording set. What a great lyric opera I have missed earlier! There is absolutely no reason for its obscurity. It is sheer bad luck for Tchaikovsky. This opera received its first performance at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on 18th December 1892.
The action takes place in the mountains of Southern France in the fifteenth century. This is Tchaikovsky's last opera. His other operas are Voyevoda, Undina, Enchantress, Vakula the Smith, Cherevichki,Oprichnik, Mazeppa, Pique Dame, Maid of Orleans and Yevgeny Onegin besides this.
The Director of the Imperial Theater, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write a one-act opera and two-act ballet in 1891. The result was Iolanta and Casse-Noisette(the Nutcracker).
Tchaikovsky was inspired by the one act play by the Danish playwright, Henrik Hertz, in 1845 called 'King Rene's Daughter'. The subject fascinated him for its poetic quality. The librettist was his brother, Modeste. Modeste worked on the translation of the Hertz play in Moscow by Vladimir Zotov.
Both the opera and the ballet were admired by Tsar Nicholas who was in the audience. Even Gustav Mahler later championed Iolanta and made it a regular opera in his repertoire.
The story is about King Rene and his blind daughter Iolanta. She is cured by the miracle working Moorish doctor, Ibn Hakia, who succeeds only when he is assured that she really wishes to be cured. Iolanta is betrothed to Prince Robert who does not love her and he is in love with Mathilde. It is the knightly Vaudemont who takes a liking to Iolanta without knowing that she is blind. When he discovers her plight, he still accepts her and motivates her to see the beauty of the creation in this life. She begins to like him and agrees to get her condition cured by Ibn Hakia.
Tchaikovsky opens the prelude to this one-act opera with a score only for winds (which was run down by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov)and brass. A lovely effect is created followed by the introduction of harp and strings for the opening garden scene. The music is reminiscent of Handel (Xerxes), Brahms (second piano concerto Andante), Puccini's La Boheme and Wagner's Tristan Prelude. There is a touch of rococo style in the first few scenes. There is brilliant scoring and melodic interjection in the arias of Ibn Hakia, Robert, King Rene, Iolanta and her duet with Vaudemont. The opera concludes with a majestic contrapuntal scene including Iolanta, Ibn Hakia, King Rene, Vaudemont, Brigitta and Laura (Iolanta's friends), Bertrand (Doorkeeper), Martha ( his wife), Almeric (armour bearer to the King), Robert and chorus.
As I have mentioned earlier, I have heard this opera for the first time yesterday in this brilliant performance by the Kirov Opera and Orchestra under the splendid direction of Valery Gergiev. This is a superb production by Philips recorded in 1996. The recording is crisp and clear. An impressive CD set worthy of an addition to any opera lover's collecction and particularly of those who like the music of Tchaikovsky. This opera deserves more hearings than accorded presently in the universal operatic repertoire. This recording will deserve AAA and five star nod from me.