Tchaikovsky’s beautiful opera of love and enlightenment, set in this fairy-tale world of castles and princesses, is definitely one to bring a tear to the eye as faith and love triumph, and help Iolanta to realise her limitations and overcome the unknown.
King René’s daughter, Iolanta, has been blind since birth. Wanting to protect her, the King charges all his servants with keeping her blindness a secret while he tries to find a cure. They cannot talk about light, color, visions, or beauty in her presence or they will be sentenced to death.
He engages the help of Ibn-Hakia, a moorish doctor, who promises to cure Iolanta’s blindness, but the remedy will only work if she wants to see. Not knowing what it is to see, Iolanta cannot desire it. A chance encounter with her betrothed, Robert and the young Count Vaudémont leads Iolanta to learn of her blindness.
Vaudémont is completely in love with the young Princess, and quickly realizes she is blind when, twice, she passes him a white rose instead of the red one he asked for. He explains to her what it means to be able to see, and Iolanta returns to her father to ask for the cure, so that she might see Vaudémont and understand.
Opera in one act
Sung in Russian
About 1 hour 40 min
Mountains of southern France
Princess Iolanta has been blind from birth. No one has ever told her (nor does she know) that she is a princess. She lives in a beautiful enclosed garden on the king's estate, secluded from the world, in the care of Bertrand and Martha. Her attendants bring flowers and sing to her. She declares her sadness, and her vague sense that she is missing something important that other people can experience. Her father, King René insists that she not discover she is blind, or that her betrothed, Duke Robert, find out about this.
After announcing the king's arrival, Alméric is warned by Bertrand not to speak of light with Iolanta or to reveal that Iolanta's father is the king. The king arrives with Ibn-Hakia, a famed Moorish physician who states that Iolanta can be cured, but the physical cure will only work if she is psychologically prepared by being made aware of her own blindness. Ibn-Hakia sings the monologue "Two worlds", explaining the interdependence of the mind and the body within the divinely ordained universe, which merges spirit and matter. The king refuses the treatment, fearing for Iolanta's happiness if the cure should fail after she has learned what she is missing.
Robert arrives at the court with his friend Count Vaudémont. Robert tells Vaudémont that he wishes to avoid the marriage as he has fallen in love with Countess Matilde. He sings of his love in his aria "Who can compare with my Mathilde" (Кто может сравниться с Матильдой моей). Vaudémont finds the entrance to Iolanta's secret garden, ignoring the sign which threatens death to anyone who enters. He sees the sleeping Iolanta, without realising who she is and instantly falls in love. Robert, astounded by his friend's behavior, is convinced she is a sorceress who has bewitched Vaudémont. He tells him to leave, but Vaudémont is too entranced. Robert departs to bring troops to rescue him. Iolanta awakes and Vaudémont, who asks her to give him a red rose as a keepsake, realizes she is blind when she twice offers him a white one. She has no concept of light, vision or blindness. They fall in love, after he explains light and color to her.
The couple are discovered by the king. Vaudémont pledges his love, whether Iolanta is blind or not. Ibn-Hakia tells the king that as Iolanta is now aware of her blindness, the treatment might be a success. Iolanta who has no will to see, is unsure therefore whether she should agree to treatment or not. Ibn-Hakia points out that the lack of will proves that, without inner desire, change cannot take place.
After Vaudémont admits seeing the warning sign at the garden entrance, the furious king threatens to execute him for revealing the truth to Iolanta. He tells Iolanta Vaudémont will die if the physician fails to restore her sight, in the hope that this will restore her will. Iolanta is horrified, and agrees to the treatment. After Ibn-Hakia leaves with Iolanta, the king explains to Vaudémont that he was feigning in order to motivate Iolanta. Robert returns with his troops. He admits to the king he has fallen in love with another, but is still willing to go ahead with the agreed marriage. The king cancels the wedding contract, and gives Iolanta to Vaudémont. Ibn-Hakia and Iolanta return. The treatment has worked and Iolanta can see. At first uncertain of her new gift, she eventually sings of the magical new world now visible to her. The court rejoices.
René – Bass
King of Provence
Robert – Baritone
Duke of Burgundy
Count Vaudémont – Tenor
A Burgundian knight
Ibn-Hakia – Baritone
A Moorish physician
Alméric – Tenor
Armor-bearer to King René
Bertrand – Bass
Doorkeeper of the castle
Iolanta – Soprano
Blind daughter of King René
Marta – Contralto
Bertrand's wife, Iolanta's nursemaid
Brigitta - Soprano
Laura - Mezzo-soprano
Place of birth: Votkinsk, Russia
Place of death: St Petersburg
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer of the Romantic period. His most famous opera, Eugene
Onegin, is among the top 20 of the most performed operas worldwide. He wrote 11 operas, 3 ballets, 6
symphonies, concertos for piano, violin and cello, choral works, string quartets, and more than 100 songs
and piano pieces. He is the most popular Russian composer of all time.
Although achieving great success as a composer, Tchaikovsky experienced hardships in his personal life. He battled depression and he struggled to live as a homosexual in a time when it was forbidden and socially unacceptable. At the age of 14 his mother died of cholera, hugely affecting the rest of his life. He was sent away to boarding school for nine years at the age of 10 to study to become a civil servant. He married a woman to fit into conventions, a marriage that would only last a few months.
In 1876 Tchaikovsky came in contact with Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and an admirer of Tchaikovsky’s music. An extraordinary relationship developed. They never met but sent each other over 1000 letters. She supported Tchaikovsky’s career financially for almost 14 years.
Tchaikovsky probably died of cholera but some believe that he committed suicide. He was 53 years old.
“To regret the past, to hope in the future, and never to be satisfied with the present: that is what I spend my whole life doing.”
Tchaikovsky suffered from stage fright and antisocial behaviour. As a guest conductor he feared that his head would fall off his body. Therefore, he sometimes held it with his hand while conducting.
Most prominent operas
The libretto was written by the composer's brother Modest Tchaikovsky, and is based on the Danish play Kong Renés Datter (King René's Daughter) by Henrik Hertz.
2d1, 2+1, 2, 2 - 4, 2, 3, 1
timp, harp, strings
Iolanta was Tchaikovsky's last opera. It premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg, in 1892.
Aria - Отчего это прежде не знала "Iolanta's Arioso" (Iolanta)
Aria – Два мира (Two worlds) "Ibn-Hakia's Monologue" (Ibn-Hakia)
Aria – Кто может сравниться с Матильдой моей (Who can be compared with my Matilda?) (Robert)