Bel Cantanti Shines Warm Light on Tchaikovsky's 'Iolanta'

By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Tchaikovsky was happier with his final opera, "Iolanta," than with "The Nutcracker" after the works premiered together on Dec. 18, 1892. History disagreed: "Iolanta" is now rarely performed outside Russia. Both the unfairness of the neglect and the reasons for it became clear when the highly creative Bel Cantanti opera company presented the one-act work Sunday at Washington Baptist Church in Bethesda.

Everyone in "Iolanta" is so darn nice to one another that the plot scarcely seems Tchaikovskian. The fairy-tale libretto -- by the composer's brother, Modest, from a Danish play by Henrik Hertz -- is silly even by opera's modest standards of believability. Princess Iolanta, blind from birth, is kept ignorant of her condition by her well-meaning father. A knight, Vaudemont, falls in love with her and makes her desire sight by speaking of God's wonders. Because she wants to see, she gains both vision and love.

This trifle requires at least nine strong singers -- one reason it is rarely staged. Bel Cantanti Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova cast every role admirably and some outstandingly. Emily Ezzie was a lovely Iolanta: youthful, naive and gentle. Vladimir Ekzarkhov's strong, resonant voice brought real power to the role of King Rene -- and pathos, when he asked God, "If I have sinned, why does my poor angel suffer?"

Noah Stewart sang Vaudemont with full, rich intensity. His duet with Ezzie was the performance's emotional high point.

Matt Osifchin's tenor was lighter, his acting more impulsive as Robert, Iolanta's original betrothed, who now loves another. Bryan Jackson was a cool-thinking, crafty Ibn-Khakia, the Moorish physician who figures out how Iolanta can learn to see.

Lesser roles were equally fine: Lingling Peng as Marta, Iolanta's nurse; David Morris as the gatekeeper, Bertrand; and Anastasia Robinson and Jessica Renfro as Iolanta's friends.

The brunt of the music was borne by Souvorova, a pianist of considerable talent and endurance. A string quartet intensified the sound. The set was well designed, and the actors used every inch of it.

There really was a King Rene -- he rode with Joan of Arc to Orleans -- and he did have a daughter named Yolande. But there is no truth in "Iolanta" -- only beauty.

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