Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival has achieved a double triumph in its productions of two one-act operas. They are Peter Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone. Both operas are directed by Peter Sellars and his idiosyncratic approach which can range from the bizarre to the brilliant is in this instant, well, simply brilliant. Sellars and Set Designer George Tsypin and Lighting Director James F. Ingalls have found points of similarity between the very different works and the productions and performances are outstanding.

Scene from Iolanta. Photo copyright Pascal Victor

Iolanta (Ekaterina Scherbachenko) is a blind princess who is kept ignorant of her sightlessness.  She lives in the forest and her father King Rene (Dimitry Ulyanov) threatens with death anyone who will disclose to Iolanta that she is blind. A knight named Vaudémont (Arnold Rutkowski) arrives with his friend Robert (Maxim Aniskin) and falls in love with the princess. Robert was betrothed to Iolanta in childhood but he is in love with someone else. Dr. Ibn-Hakia (Willard White) cures her of her blindness and the fairy tale ends happily.

Russian soprano Scherbachenko sings a marvelously moving and affecting Iolanta. She and tenor Rutkowski sing some gorgeous arias. Ulyanov has a powerful bass voice and made a very strong and assertive king. Jamaican baritone White has been around the block many times but he holds his own with an expressive performance.

Major credit for the production is due to Sellars. The set consists of little more than four doorways with some decorative figures on top. Lighting is of great importance. Iolanta lives in darkness and there is very little movement. The change in lighting emphasizes the darkness and stillness of her world. We see shadows and silhouettes. The costumes are almost entirely black.

At the end all is resolved and the chorus sings a capella a sublime hymn to the Holy Trinity. This is followed by a rousing Gloria to bring the opera to a glorious end.

Sellars uses the same set for Persephone but with different lighting and effects. The opera is based on a poem by Andre Gide and tells the story of the abduction of the daughter of the goddess Demeter by Pluto, the god of the underworld.

Scene from Persephone. Photo copyright Pascal Victor

The opera is part recitation, part singing and part ballet. Eumolpus, the son of Poseidon and founder of the Eleusinian Mysteries, recites part of the story from Homer about the abduction of Persephone. He is an old man leaning on a white stick and tells/sings the story, we can assume, like a Homeric bard. American tenor Paul Groves does well in the role.

Actress Dominique Blanc plays the role of Persephone with considerable dramatic effect. The rest of the opera is performed by a Cambodian dance group called Amrita Performing Arts. Sathya Sam dances Persephone, Sodhachivy Chumvan dances Demeter, Chan Sithyka Khon is Pluton and Narim Nam takes on the roles of Mercury, Demophon and Triptolemos. They dance in classic Cambodian style with economical but expressive movements.

The opera has three tableaux: The Abduction of Persephone, Persephone in Hades and the Rebirth of Persephone.

Teodor  Currentzis conducted the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra national de Lyon in exceptional performances of Tchaikovsky’s and Stravinsky’s music.

Sellars created these productions for the Teatro Real de Madrid in 2012 and one can only applaud the Aix Festival for reprising them. Is anyone listening in Toronto?

From Hades to Cambodia, from medieval Europe to 19th century Russia, not to mention 1930’s Paris and recent Madrid – all those disparate elements gathered in Aix-en-Provence for a hymn of praise and glory and a great night at the opera.     

IOLANTA by Peter Tchaikovsky and PERSEPHONE by Igor Stravinsky opened on July 5 and will be performed five times until July 19, 2015 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.

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