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Although only `Eugene Onegin' and `The Queen of Spades' have made any serious headway in Western theatres, Tchaikovsky regarded his operas as central to his life's work and operatic success as central to his public success as a composer: whereas a symphony or string quartet might only be performed occasionally, he wrote, a hit in the opera house "could be performed forty times in one season" and opera "alone provides you with the opportunity to communicate with the masses of the public".*
`Iolanta' was his tenth and final completed opera, although he had destroyed the scores of two of them (`The Voyevoda' and `Undine'). In one act, it was conceived and commissioned to be performed in tandem with his ballet, `The Nutcracker'. The plot can be told briefly: a young princess is blind from birth and kept in (over)protective seclusion by her father; she develops the ability to see when she falls almost instantly in love with a young knight, who has opportunely stumbled upon their castle; cue general rejoicing as the curtain falls. The libretto, by Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer's brother), shows that he was aptly named as far as his talents went - the work is padded out to its detriment by a lot of rather perfunctory dialogue between sundry characters explaining the background and the course of events as the opera progresses.
Having said that, there are some attractive set pieces in the score - for example, a stirring aria for the king and Iolanta's justly well-known aria, "Why until now have I never known anguish?" (which latter crops up occasionally in the concert hall and on disc). Read more ›
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