Reviewed by Tony Villecco
Peter Ilitsch Tchaikovsky’s one-act opera, Iolanta, proved a sure-fire hit at its Binghamton premiere Thursday evening (Nov. 12) at the newly named Savoca Hibbitt Hall at the Tri-Cities Opera Center in Binghamton. Once again becoming a staple in regional houses, Iolanta was featured at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time earlier this year.
As expected, the moving score did not let up for a minute, no doubt reflecting, in part, some of Tchaikovsky’s own deeply personal pain and his exuberance, as well. Originally intended to be presented with his famed Nutcracker ballet, the opera eventually became recognized as its own valuable entity.
At TCO, a very strong cast of young singers in training made some impressionable characterizations with vocals to match. Abigail Rethwisch sang superbly as the title character, a blind princess who has no conception that she is either blind or of royalty. Her voice is plummy, large and expressive. She managed to express the young girl’s naiveté as well as her rebirth into a world she had not been able to imagine, let alone inhabit.
Bass-baritone Andrew Hiers was a regal King René, Iolanta’s father whose love for his daughter propels him to make some unexpected decisions. Hiers’ has a strong and pliable voice, and he delivering his impassioned arias and ensembles remarkably well. Could we have a future Baron Scarpia here? Yes, the voice is big but never cumbersome.
Baritone John Viscardi, a guest artist, also was strong vocally, producing a wealth of rich and vibrant tones as he depicted Robert, a man betrothed to Iolanta but in love with another. Tenor Jordan Schreiner sang Count Vaudémont, Robert’s friend, with passion, and his acting was perhaps, the most sincere, even at times at the expense of his singing. His realization that Iolanta is blind was both poignant and served to take him to a higher level when declaring his love for her.
Local favorite Jake Stamatis portrayed Ibn-Hakia, the foreign physician sent for to devise a cure for Iolanta’s blindness. The bass-baritone has a rare stage presence, and he produced a warm, secure yet plangent tonality.
All of the secondary roles were carried out well. Quinn Bernegger was the youthful Alméric, armor bearer to the King. A soft and melodic tonality marked his singing throughout. Josiah Davis presented the gate keeper in a well-rounded bass voice. Stacey Geyer and Mary Beth Nelson as Iolanta’s friends both acquitted themselves with distinction, singing solo or in ensemble but never over shadowing one another.
As the nurse, mezzo Lindsay Kate Brown was a standout. Her tone is lustrous, warm and deep. She had no difficulty in accessing her chest register, a rock-solid reminder that this voice could one day, perhaps, sing an Amneris or, dare I say it?, an Azucena. The quartet of ladies in their “flower ensemble” were reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s opening scene in Eugene Onegin, in which Madame Larina joins voices with Olga, Tatiana and the nurse, Filipievna. The lovely “sleep trio” was slightly overshadowed by the strength of Brown’s tower of sound.
There were times that all principals, especially the men, seemed to be pushing, and in this hall, the acoustics are so “live” that one does not need to over-exert the vocals. Of critical support was the excellent piano playing and directing of Yelena Kurdina whose sensitivity to the singers is paramount.
Stage director James Kenon Mitchell made wise use of the small but handsome set by AmarA, aided by effective lighting by Craig Saeger. The regal costuming was credited to Jana Kucera and the handsomely displayed makeup and hair to Danielle Baker.
Iolanta‘s 90-plus minutes (with no intermission) passed too quickly as we all witnessed the charming tale of love and redemption enveloped in the passionate musical scope of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent writing. I look forward to future productions in this newly revamped performance space.
IF YOU GO: Performances are at 7:30 p.m. today (Nov. 13) and at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (Nov. 14-15) at the Tri-Cities Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. Tickets are $45 and $35. Call 772-0400, or visit www.tricitiesopera.com. The website features a plot synopsis.