The 2019 production from the Opernstudio der Bayerischen Staatsoper (basically their young artists programme) was a bit unusual. Director Axel Ranisch created a kind of mash up of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Stravinsky’s very short opera Mavra. Iolanta is about a blind princess who doesn’t realise she is blind. It’s only when she meets her future husband, a French count Vaudémont, that she realises this. Her father the king employs a Moorish doctor to try and cure her, which fails, but believing that if she doesn’t pretend to be sighted her suitor will be executed she fakes it and is given to him in marriage. He alone realises she is still blind and puts out his own eyes in sympathy (this is pretty hard to watch!). In the process they both realise that God’s creation is much greater than human eyes can perceive.
Mavra on the other hand is a cheeky piece about a daughter who inveigles her lover into her mother’s house in disguise as a replacement for the recently deceased cook. Here the Mavra characters are played as Iolanta’s dolls and at the end they restore the sight of Iolanta and Vaudémont by giving them their dolls’ heads. Shedding their heads and most of their clothing they are discovered in flagrante by the Mother and both couples realise that the time has come to depart for adult life. Thus Tchaikovsky’s metaphysical parable and Stravinsky’s rustic comedy come together to produce a rather touching coming of age story.
The Munich staging is slick using a rotating set that alternates between kitchen, Iolanta’s bedroom and the forest. The puppet scenes are reinforced by Iolanta in a window above the stage mimicking the action with dolls and an on-stage band. It took me a few scenes to really get into it but by the time the duet between Vaudémont and Iolanta; “The first wonder of creation” came around I was sold. The Tchaikovsky music is gorgeously lyrical and this duet is really beautiful and it’s sung wonderfully well by tenor Long Long and soprano Mirjam Mesak. In many ways they are the big stars here but there are fine performances too by Anna El-Khashem as the daughter Parasha and her hussar lover Vassili, sung strongly by Freddie de Tommasso. Both of them enthusiastically get into the rather raunchy action. Markus Suikhonen is also excellent as King René. But really, all the singing is so good it’s more than easy to forget that this is a YAP performance. The BSO children’s choir (just the girls here) is also excellent.
Alevtina Ioffe conducts. Both works are given in chamber reduction which makes sense as the performance was filmed in the Cuvilliés Theatre which is a court theatre dating from the 1750s. I don’t know the exact capacity but I’m guessing not more than about 500. Anyway, both pieces sound good in the arrangements used and Ioffe switches back and forth between two very contrasting styles; high romantic for Iolanta and something quite jazzy for Mavra, with aplomb.
\Video direction by Corentin Leconte is pleasingly unobtrusive and is backed up by a very good picture on Blu-ray (the lighting is often quite dark and complex) and equally good DTS-HD-MA and stereo sound. There aren’t any extras but the booklet contains a scene by scene synopsis, a track listing and some really helpful explanatory material. Subtitle options are Russian, German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.
So, a bit of an oddity but really rather enjoyable and a chance to see some fine young singers who sound like they are heading for bigger things.
Catalogue number: Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings BSOREC2003