Yolanta, a girl on the brink of womanhood, stares out at you from the cover of "Yolanta," a splendid new opera recording from Erato. Her eyes are striking, not only for their deep blue but for their strange, unfocused stare -- behind which lies a symbolic tale, a curious variation on the familiar Sleeping Beauty motif. Yolanta is blind.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky told the story in his final opera, "Yolanta," with a curious mix xr of other-world atmosphere and psychological symbolism. When Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony presented it here four years ago, with Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role, it was one of the year's most notable musical events in Washington.
Now, just in time for Rostropovich's birthday (which he will celebrate next Thursday by conducting the National Symphony), "Yolanta" is back in a sparkling digital recording. With Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya both in top form (recorded at a 1984 live performance in Paris), the opera receives the most striking performance we are likely to hear in this century. Its appearance is an event well calculated to lure listeners deeply into the strange and wonderful world of Tchaikovsky's operas.
This part of Tchaikovsky's work is still far from completely explored in the West. But performances and recordings are increasing outside of Russia, and there is a growing recognition that Tchaikovsky was one of the great operatic composers of his time. This recognition has been delayed because (like that other tardily xl recognized giant Leos Janacek) he used a language outside the European operatic canon. With the growing use of translated sur- or subtitles, xl in opera houses and video productions, that barrier xl seems less formidable. Among western connoisseurs, Tchaikovsky's operatic music may eventually find more respect than Puccini's.
Much of the energy promoting Russian culture today in Europe and America is that of defectors (like Baryshnikov) or more or less unwilling e'migre's like Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. One historic result of it may be the preservation of Russian culture outside of its homeland in a purer form than is allowed at home -- as German and Central European refugees preserved their cultures in exile during the Nazi years. The Erato recording of "Yolanta" is more authentic than Soviet-sponsored productions, which systematically omit Tchaikovsky's numerous references to God.
In the recording, as in the Washington performances, nostalgia for a lost home was clearly part of the performance subtext. The husband-and-wife collaboration of Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya in this work of high romantic idealism also came across as a sort of public gesture of mutual love -- a quality that is reflected, though perhaps less vividly, in the recording. Vishnevskaya has now retired as an operatic singer, but Washington will see her talents in a new form next fall when she serves as stage director while her husband conducts the Washington Opera's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Tsar's Bride."
Musically, "Yolanta" lacks the vitality, variety and superb polish -- the enormous immediate appeal -- of "Eugene Onegin"; the music makes a stronger impression on the 10th hearing than on the first two or three -- a rare happening in Tchaikovsky's music. Theatrically, this work falls short of the fast, abruptly changing action and spectacular gestures of his "Queen of Spades." But it has a unique, gentle charm of its own, as "The Nutcracker" (composed at the same time) has among his ballets.
Both pieces embody the composer's wistful tribute to innocence. The opera goes beyond the ballet in its recognition that there are values beyond innocence -- that experience and maturity are necessary for the formation of a complete human being, able to function effectively outside of a protected environment. In his own life, Tchaikovsky never really reached that maturity; he died (possibly racked with the feelings of guilt to which innocent people are peculiarly susceptible) still unable to cope with the harsh realities of the world outside his own childlike imagination. "Yolanta" stands as poignant evidence of his yearning, on some level of awareness, for a passage into that adult world.
The music, which curiously combines the textures of spring and those of autumn, is less spectacular than much of his other work. But it effectively reinforces the sentiments and the symbolism of his text. In this unspectacular but effective music, as in its not-of-this-world setting, "Yolanta" sometimes curiously resembles Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande."
Both of these operas may be among the relatively small number that can work best of all without staging, letting the listener's imagination supply a visual background too rich and impalpable for any stage designer. Both are highly specialized tastes -- unique works of art -- and their very singularity somehow seems to draw them closer together.
Yolanta is the daughter of King Rene' of Provence. He was a historical person, a poet whose works can still be sought out by the curious today, though this story is anything but historical. In the opera, if not in reality, his daughter was born blind and her royal father has set up a special, protected environment -- an isolated castle in which she lives alone with a few women to care for her. There is a death penalty for anyone else who tries to visit the castle.
The king thinks he can protect his daughter from the unhappiness of self-knowledge by banning awareness of life's visual dimension from her environment; such words as "light," "color" and "vision" are banished from her attendants' vocabulary. Sometimes they slip -- in the opera, one attendant observes that Yolanta has tears in her eyes, and Yolanta wonders how she could know without touching her face. She senses something missing from her apparently idyllic life, but cannot imagine what it may be. As far as she knows, the production of tears is all that eyes are good for.
Rene' is trying to solve a problem by denying that it exists. This policy is opposed by Ibn-Hakia, a Moorish physician who has been brought in to attempt a cure. "I cannot begin treatment," he says, "until Yolanta knows about her blindness and yearns to be cured." But the king blindly pursues his policy; he is not the first potentate, nor the last, who has hired an expert consultant only to ignore the expert advice. When Prince Charming (a nobleman named Vaudemont, stylishly sung by Nicolai Gedda) finds his way into this artificial world, he learns gradually that Yolanta does not understand the normal references to light and vision in his conversation. Through Vaudemont, she finally learns of the existence of light and ultimately breaks through into the world of vision.
The symbolism of this story is apparent on several levels -- above all, perhaps, as an indictment of the values and educational principles of Victorian society. The most obvious parallel is the system that treated ignorance of sex as a sort of virtue and experience as somehow degrading. But the principle can apply more broadly to education of any kind. All significant learning begins in a confrontation with the fact of our ignorance; the worst barrier to learning is the illusion that we already know -- or the fear that we will be ridiculed if we admit our ignorance.
For Tchaikovsky, a homosexual, the symbolism may relate to his desire to come out of the closet. For the thinking listener, Ibn-Hakia's aria on the need for harmony between the mind (or soul) and the body ramifies in many directions, social and psychological. Overtones of the symbolism take the mind into religious mysticism -- the Kierkegaardian concept of faith, for example: "a leap in the darkness." The libretto, written by Tchaikovsky's brother Modeste, has its awkward moments. But its occasional lack of focus may actually enhance the opera's powers of suggestion.
The Erato recording uses the Orchestre de Paris and a strong international supporting cast. Except for the principals mentioned above, it differs from the cast of the Washington performance but is not notably superior in this recording.
"Yolanta" is available in three formats: compact disc (ECD 88147, two discs), LP (NUM 75207, two LPs) and audio cassette (NUM 75207, two cassettes), each with a libretto carefully tailored to the size of the package. The sound of the CD edition is the best, but all three formats are quite satisfactory.