Peter Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Iolanta, is tender, magical and poignant. The work was on the programme of the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2022, conducted by chief conductor Kirill Petrenko.
Imagine that you were blind from birth, that not being able to see was normal for you. If no one told you what others used their eyes for, it would probably not occur to you that you might be lacking in anything. Especially if you were also completely isolated from the outside world and had only a few close confidants around you, all of whom wove a web of lies and did not tell you what sight means.
That is precisely the plot of Peter Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Iolanta, which he composed in 1891, two years before his death.
Tchaikovsky had read the drama King René’s Daughter by the Danish poet Henrik Hertz in the magazine The Russian Messenger in 1833 and thus discovered the tragic story of the blind princess Iolanta. The composer was very moved by her fate, since this “heroine” was a victim, an outsider, and – as a homosexual – Tchaikovsky knew this situation all too well.
The make-believe world in which Iolanta had to live was also familiar to him. He had, after all, tried to create an alternative “reality” by marrying his student Antonina Milyukova in 1877 in order to conform to middle-class conventions.
A disastrous step, which drove him to a suicide attempt after a few weeks and was not voluntary. Tchaikovsky not only saw himself confronted with rigid social constraints, he also had to fear legal prosecution should his inclinations become known. He could have been banished to Siberia, and his bourgeois existence would have been destroyed. Iolanta’s case was even more highly charged, however, because she was deliberately deceived by those closest to her and taken for a fool. She had no choice.
»an intimate but powerful drama«
“I am looking for an intimate but powerful drama, based on a conflict of circumstances such as I myself have experienced or witnessed, which is capable of moving me deeply,” Tchaikovsky had once written, describing his ideal subject matter for an opera.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni seemed to be the measure of all things for him, “the pinnacle of all of operatic literature”, as he said. But Tchaikovsky also enjoyed Bizet’s Carmen; he loved the crowd scenes, the bullfight, and he found his favourite theme again in the fate of the two main characters, Carmen and Don José: the power of cruel destiny.
Tchaikovsky was not convinced by what his colleague Richard Wagner put to paper, however. He had seen the Ring des Nibelungen at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876. “All these Wotans and Brünnhildes are so impossible, so unlike human beings, it is so difficult to feel any real sympathy for them,” Tchaikovsky wrote after the performance of the Walküre. “There is just so little life there. Wotan spends a full three-quarters of an hour reprimanding Brünnhilde for her disobedience. How tedious!”
But Tchaikovsky could not warm to Wagner’s polar opposite, Giuseppe Verdi, either. “I don’t give a damn about effects!” he said heatedly, referring to Aida. “The feelings of an Egyptian princess, a pharaoh and some crazy Nubian girl are beyond my knowledge and comprehension.”
Timeless and deeply human characters
How different it was with poor Iolanta! And with the other characters in Henrik Hertz’s drama as well. With their inner conflicts they seemed timeless and deeply human to Tchaikovsky, despite the fact that the story is set in France in the middle of the 15th century.
Iolanta’s father, King René, for example, who wants so much to help his daughter and therefore even brings the Moorish doctor, Ibn-Hakia, to his court, because he claims to know how to make the blind see. René refuses to agree to the “therapy”, however, because Ibn-Hakia insists that Iolanta must first be told that she is blind. The king does not want to burden his beloved child with that.
Robert, Duke of Burgundy, to whom Iolanta was betrothed without ever having seen her, is also unhappy.
Since he has fallen in love with another woman, he decides to ask King René to release him from the betrothal. He is accompanied by his friend, Count Vaudémont, on this delicate mission.
But as fate would have it, before the two reach the king, they come upon Iolanta in the palace garden. Vaudémont is immediately enchanted by her.
He speaks with her and quickly realizes that she is blind. Unlike the sworn royal household, he does not hesitate to speak to her directly about it.
When Vaudémont explains to her what sight is and what light means, Iolanta learns for the first time what makes her different from other people. King René is furious when he hears about it and threatens to have Vaudémont killed, but Iolanta has already fallen in love with him.
The orchestral introduction to Iolanta
is one of Tchaikovsky’s most unconventional works
The more Tchaikovsky immersed himself in this wild drama, the more it fascinated him, and he soon entertained the idea of setting it to music. At the same time, however, he was also preoccupied with Alexander Pushkin’s story The Queen of Spades, and he took up that project first.
He did not ask his brother Modest to write the libretto for Iolanta until the spring of 1888, and another three years passed before he began work on the composition. Although Tchaikovsky wrote ten operas all told, he invariably questioned his talent as a musical dramatist. “It has long been an established fact that I have no dramatic vein,” he once declared.
It’s not surprising that from the start he gave his most famous opera, Eugene Onegin, the qualifying subtitle “lyric scenes”. He also labelled Iolanta with the same modifier as a “lyrical opera”, which seems like a contradiction in terms with such a drama.
Iolanta is Tchaikovsky’s most unusual stage work. The fact that he consciously avoided anything that might resemble operatic convention is already apparent in its formal structure as a one-acter. For that reason, Iolanta was presented for the first time as part of a double bill with the ballet The Nutcracker on 18 December 1892. Musically, however, the two works are worlds apart.
Even the orchestral introduction to Iolanta is one of Tchaikovsky’s most unconventional works. Only woodwinds and horns are heard in this overture – the strings must remain silent. The perpetual darkness in which Iolanta lives is depicted musically, and the descending melodic lines, the insistent, pulse-like repeated notes and the harmonic suspensions, which are reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan, reveal how much unrest there is in this heroine’s heart.
Opera with happy ending
In any case, Tchaikovsky is closer to the vilified Wagner in this opera than one might suppose. He sets the vocal parts in a declamatory style for long stretches, and the onomatopoeic effects are also modelled after the Bayreuth master: for example, when King René’s arrival is celebrated with the sound of horns and trumpets, when the violas and cellos imitate the clatter of horses’ hooves as Duke Robert and Count Vaudémont enter, or when Ibn-Hakia embellishes his therapeutic concept with Middle Eastern melismata.
On the other hand, during the key scene of the work, the long duet between Vaudémont and Iolanta, Tchaikovsky is entirely in his element when he illuminates the hearts of his protagonists with magnificent melodies and poses the philosophical question of perception: does one really need light to understand the truth, or – as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry later expressed it – is it “only with the heart that one can see rightly”?
It was the closing scene of the story, above all, that provided Tchaikovsky with the best material for a thrilling musical reversal. Iolanta agrees to the therapy if her father allows Count Vaudémont to live. He, in turn, asks the King for Iolanta’s hand in marriage. After Ibn-Hakia’s treatment the blind princess can actually see – and Tchaikovsky emphasizes the happy ending with the complete opposite of the opening: a finale in radiant C major.
Considering the depressive tendencies from which the composer himself frequently suffered, this final turn of events seems like a surreal dream. It depicts the utopia of a world in which love prevails, light shines for all, lies are no longer necessary and no one must fear punishment. Only a fairy tale can be that perfect. Or the opera.