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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tchaikovsky Classic Gets Impassioned New Look

For its new version of Tchaikovsky's "Iolanthe," which made a debut last week, Helikon Opera has again looked outside its own ranks for musical direction, staging and set design. But unlike the company's recent "Barber of Seville," with a production team imported from Italy, "Iolanthe" matches first-class leadership from the podium with exciting work on the stage.

To conduct "Iolanthe," the Helikon has turned to Alexander Vedernikov, the young musical director of one of Moscow's newer orchestras, the Russian Philharmonia. Vedernikov gives Tchaikovsky's beautiful score a precise, impassioned reading. Perhaps, as the son of a distinguished Bolshoi Opera bass, his real musical home is the opera house rather than the concert hall. Certainly he left a far more positive impression last week at the Helikon than in recent concerts heard at the conservatory.

Stage direction and set design fell to Frenchman Denis Krief, a rising star among operatic producers in Western Europe. Krief delved deeply into the meaning of the opera's story and the composer's approach to it. What he came up with surely amounts to the most daring and thought-provoking operatic production seen in Moscow this season.

"Iolanthe" was Tchaikovsky's last opera, completed barely a year before his untimely and mysterious death. Written on commission from St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, the opera received its premiere there on a double bill with the composer's ballet "The Nutcracker," in December 1892. Though Tchaikovsky considered both the book and the score of "Iolanthe" of far greater importance than those of "The Nutcracker," the opera remains virtually unknown even today.

Based on a play by Danish writer Henrik Hertz, who in turn took his work from a tale by a fellow Dane, Hans Christian Andersen, "Iolanthe" tells of a princess who is blind from birth and, at the command of her father, King Rene of Provence, kept secluded from the world and unaware of her sightlessness. A Burgundian knight named Vaudemont blunders into Rene's castle, discloses to Iolanthe that she is blind and awakens in her feelings of love and physical passion. With the power of love at her command, Iolanthe finally gains the power of sight.

Krief moves the action of "Iolanthe" forward to the era in which the opera was written, viewing its story in the light of Sigmund Freud's contemporaneous explorations of psychic illness. Iolanthe first appears not in the castle garden, but in a hospital, perhaps in a psychiatric ward. Much of the action that follows is played as a dream.

In his role as stage designer, Krief created a simple, austere setting -- half hospital ward, half salon and garden.

Krief's reading of "Iolanthe" is bound to offend some of its viewers and raise doubts among others. But at least it is a reading, which is more than can be said of the Bolshoi's latest production, first seen last summer, where a lackadaisical staging plays out against an absurdly constructed and garishly decorated set, or of the stale, 30-year-old production on view at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater.

For the premiere last week, the Helikon fielded a generally strong cast. Yelena Kachura led the way with a fully rounded portrayal of the heroine, moving seamlessly from a sort of vague madness to a final clear-sighted rationality. Vladimir Ognev played a suitably somber and troubled King Rene and brought to the part a bass voice of truly extraordinary quality.

The five performances of "Iolanthe" given this week and last are the only ones scheduled until the new season starting next autumn. In the meantime, however, between now and early July, the Helikon has a full schedule of other works, including reprises of its musically excellent "Barber of Seville," by Rossini (June 3, 4 and 5), and of two jewels of its repertoire -- Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" (May 20, 21 and 22) and the double bill of Prokofiev's "Maddalena" and Stravinsky's "Mavra" (June 17 and 18), plus a new production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" (scheduled for one performance only, July 4).