Blind faith: COT’s splendid “Iolanta”

Mikhail Svetlov as King René in Chicago Opera Theater’s “Iolanta.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

What: “Iolanta”
Where: Studebaker Theater
When: Through Nov. 18

Classical Music Critic

Chicago Opera Theater (COT) has opened its 2018-19 season with Tchaikovsky’s final opera, the one-act “Iolanta.” Opening night at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building was packed.

“Iolanta” is the story of a princess (the title character) who was born blind. Her protective father, King René, has insisted that no one around her is to tell her she is blind, so that she does not know she is different from other people. Dr. Ibn-Hakia tells the king that Iolanta can be cured, but only if she first learns she cannot see. The king refuses. Robert, her betrothed, arrives in Iolanta’s garden with his friend Vaudemont. Robert has fallen in love with someone else and after Vaudemont meets Iolanta, he discovers her blindness, explains to her what it means to see, and they fall in love. Iolanta agrees to Ibn-Hakia’s cure, it is successful, and the opera ends with joy as Iolanta embraces a life with sight and a happy marriage to Vaudemont.

Tchaikovsky’s 90-minute opera is full of sweeping melody and emotional intensity. COT has assembled a strong cast of singers, led by soprano Katherine Weber as Iolanta. She evokes sympathy as well as admiration as she navigates her dark world. Weber sings with conviction and offers an attractive voice full of youthfulness and vigor. She can lose color at the very top of her range, but offers a fully realized character.

Tenor John Irvin creates a suitor in Vaudemont who is caring and heroic. He imbues his singing with tenderness and understanding, and has a voice that is flexible and attractive. Even when Vaudemont blunders and brags to her father that the young woman would not lose status if she married him (not realizing that her father is king), you are convinced his affection for her is true.

Russian bass Mikhail Svetlov is a marvel as King René, who steals the show every time he takes the stage. He has commanding, rumbling, and invigorating sound as well as the presence of nobility. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. He was given the most thunderous applause during the curtain calls.

The pivotal role of Ibn-Hakia, the no-nonsense Muslim doctor, is brought to life by bass-baritone Bill McMurray, who offers a compelling picture of a man of both science and spirituality.

The smaller roles are also well cast, led by bass-baritone David Govertsen, a remarkably versatile singer and actor who plays Bertrand, the man who guards Iolanta.

Director Paul Curran achieves a lot with an incredibly simple set. The main element, by scenic designer Alan E. Muraoka, is a set of tall, narrow flats on wheels which are moved about the stage to create walls or pillars and which feature evocative projections. The lighting and projections by Driscoll Otto enhance the fairy tale setting and highlight the dark world of the blind princess.

It’s a pity that the story has been set in recent past, as the costumes work against the music and story. The women are outfitted in what looks to be communist shabby chic, and the men of high rank look like mid-20th century businessmen with a blindness to fashion.

Only one section of the staging truly falls flat, and that is during Ibn-Hakia’s aria, where he holds his coat open, as if it were meant to form wings, and we see strange, glowing marks on the inside. What they mean, and why his face and hands glow as well, is a peculiar mystery, and distracts from the story.

Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, who was appointed music director of COT 18 months ago, makes her awaited debut with this production. The program describes her as the only female music director of a multimillion-dollar opera company in the U.S. She presides over a 40-piece orchestra with confidence. The opening minutes, however, were fraught. The orchestral sound was thin and lacked coherence and the violins suffered some awkward intonation problems. But soon matters settled down and the orchestra found its footing. Yankovskaya offered good pacing and was sensitive to the singers, creating a rich musical environment.

According to COT’s research, this is the Chicago premiere of “Iolanta,” which was completed in 1891 and premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1892. The first non-Russian performance was in Hamburg a year later, conducted by Gustav Mahler. With a run of only three performances, you must move fast to catch this little gem.