Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Iolanta/The Nutcracker
L'Opéra National de Paris, 2016
Alain Altinoglu, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Sonya Yoncheva, Arnold Rutkowski, Andrei Jilihovschi, Vito Priante, Roman Shulakov, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Elena Zaremba, Anna Patalong, Paola Gardina
Culturebox - March 2016
Given their shared history, it's surprising that opera and ballet tend to remain within their respective disciplines and rarely cross-over. There are of course exceptions and one of them is the pairing of Tchaikovsky's short opera Iolanta with the composer's ballet The Nutcracker at its Mariinsky premiere in 1892. It's also notable that combining opera and ballet in the same programme is traditionally something that has been done in French opera from Lully, Rameau and Gluck right through to the extravagant excesses of the Grand Opéra.
So while it is more common nowadays to see Iolanta paired with another short opera by a different composer, it's undoubtedly instructive to see the work paired in the way it was originally intended, and it's appropriate that it should be the Paris Opera who stage the two works in the same programme. Considering the separate paths that both works and disciplines have taken in the meantime however it would still take some radical reworking for it to succeed. Fortunately the Paris Opera have entered a new period of productive experimentation again and, fortunately in this case, they have engaged Dmitri Tcherniakov to come up with a daring approach to the programming that confounds any expectations.
Surprisingly however, at least initially, it looks like Tcherniakov might be going down the same relatively safe route as his La Traviata for La Scala in 2013 (although you can't be safe enough for La Scala). His Iolanta is set in the same sort of drawing room, the decor, lighting and costumes all suggesting period in a way that conforms with the attitudes expressed in the drama, with there being little evidence of his usual modern subversion of the works. The placement of a Christmas tree in the drawing room suggests that Iolanta will blend into The Nutcracker, and indeed it does, but not at all in the way you might expect, the tree even being abandoned before the ballet starts, and the Christmas drawing room scene following it soon after.
The Nutcracker proves to be not so much a continuation of the story of Iolanta as much as an extension of its themes, assuming that you see its story of a young girl who has is cured from blindness as a metaphor for a young woman coming of age. That's certainly how the Metropolitan Opera played the work when it paired Iolanta with Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, a double-bill that put the emphasis on sexual awakening and liberation. Although successfully staged, it was still a fairly radical and dark exploration of the works' themes and not the most obvious direction you would see Iolanta moving towards. Seen in the context of its pairing with The Nutcracker, the Paris production is a more simple matter of coming of age and self-awareness, but there's nothing at all straightforward in the way Tcherniakov's production sets about it.
If Iolanta was played fairly straight, with perhaps only an additional emotional intensity brought out in the uniformly strong singing and acting performances - with a notably sweeping performance from Sonya Yoncheva - the already notorious opera director really lets loose in his settings for the ballet sequences of The Nutcracker. It starts out fairly sedately with the cast of Iolanta remaining on the stage, Clara here appearing to be the little sister of Iolanta rather than a straightforward double or mirror role. If the dancing is not the traditional ballet steps, it is initially at least smooth and fluid, the party games and march music involving a kind of musical chairs game and playing with a nutcracker piñata.
That's about as close as this version of the ballet gets to any of its traditional reference points. The movements, choreographed in the first part by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, become more frantic and modern with jerking semaphored movements and rhythms as Clara dances with Fritz. Without the familiar ETA Hoffmann story points, it's hard to establish exactly what is going on when a gunshot is fired (by Drosselmeyer?) and the drawing room seems to explode in a ball of fire, leaving Iolana not involved in a war between gingerbread soldiers and grey mice, but in a desolate forest of swirling ashes and snow. Whirling changes of perspective add to the sense of dislocation through projections of the dark woods that are populated by dark shadowy figures with torches.
Act II of the Nutcracker takes us further into unfamiliar territory and strange imagery, with additional dance sequences by two other choreographers, Edouard Lock and Arthur Pita. The shadow of a giant bird circles, an enormous CGI hippo wanders through the woods, but the notion of sexual awakening is suggested by several Claras all dancing with fine young men, with the principal Clara writhing suggestively on the forest floor, abandoning herself to her inner nature. One would think that the traditional sweets and gifts from around the world would suit the purposes of this enlarging of Clara's (and by extension Iolanta's) world, but instead the scene is colourfully filled by huge toys which take us through to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The final pas-de-deux is also extraordinary, beautifully choreographed as a succession of Claras dance with the Prince through to old age.
It might not adhere to the original Nutcracker and the connection with Iolanta is tenuous, but it's a beautiful and poignant interpretation that works fully with Tchaikovsky's musical expression. More than just a dream, Clara's experience is a life-long journey that is even more fantastical than the original conception. That's what Tcherniakov does and it doesn't always please opera fans, so I'm sure it will also no doubt horrify some ballet fans more used to the traditional 'Casse-Noisette' that is a perennial favourite at the Paris Opera. It's all the more impressive then that the overall reception to this daring extravaganza has been very positive. It's another promising sign of the new director Stéphane Lissner successfully putting a progressive stamp on the Paris Opera.
Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National de Paris