Composed in 1891, Iolanta, Op. 69 was Tchaikovsky’s eleventh and last completed opera. On the evening of December 18, 1892, it shared a double premiere with the ballet, The Nutcracker, at Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Mahler conducted the Vienna premiere in 1900. Then, the work fell into relative obscurity.
Set in one act, Iolanta is based on a story by the Danish writer, Henrik Hertz (1798–1870). Iolanta is a fifteenth century French princess whose lifelong blindness is a well-kept secret. She has spent her life isolated in a beautiful enclosed garden on the King’s estate, and has not been allowed to know that she is different from other people, or that she is a princess. Count Vaudémont falls in love with Iolanta and offers her a cure. The treatment cannot succeed without her desire to venture into a new, previously unimaginable world of sight.
In the opera’s first scene, Iolanta asks, “Were we given eyes only for tears?” She has a nagging sense that something is missing from her life. (“I long for something, but I don’t know what.”) Iolanta’s wistful aria, Otchego eto prezhde ne znala (“Why haven’t I known this before?”), includes the lines,
I heard birds chirping, and warmth brought the distant pine forest to life. The sounds of rejoicing echoed all around, and I could join in with nature’s festive choir. But now the day evokes a deep, incomprehensible rebuke.
Iolanta’s combination of innocence, melancholy, and longing is evident in this recording by the legendary Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya:
Born in Leningrad in 1926, Galina Vishnevskaya was named a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1966. She was the wife of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and a friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote two song cycles and an orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death for her. Additionally, it was Vishnevskaya who performed the soprano part in Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony. Benjamin Britten wrote the soprano part of his War Requiem with Vishnevskaya in mind, but the Soviet authorities did not allow her to travel to Coventry for the premiere. In 1974, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich left the Soviet Union and settled in the United States. Vishnevskaya passed away in Moscow in 2012 at the age of 86.
Galina Vishnevskaya was a noted interpreter of Russian songs. Here is her recording of Tchaikovsky’s haunting and hypnotic Lullaby from Six Romances, Op. 16: