Chicago Opera Theater is one of the most exciting and innovative artistic companies performing right now. Opening its 46th season with the Chicago premiere of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta, the company celebrated a number of “firsts” with this production:
- This premiere is the first time Iolanta has been performed in Chicago.
- This is the first Russian language opera to be performed by Chicago Opera Theater.
- This is the company debut of Scottish director Paul Curran.
- This is the podium debut of Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, currently the only female music director of a major American opera company.
It was first performed in 1892 and the libretto was written by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky. (Fun fact: the first time Iolanta was performed, it was on a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s final ballet, The Nutcracker.) It is a one-act play with no intermission, clocking in at 85 minutes—a terrific “starter” opera, for those worried that they may not enjoy the show.
In addition to the glorious music and incredible voices, Chicago Opera Theater proved to be extremely creative in the production of this show. The eponymous character of Iolanta is blind and lives in a garden. Chicago Opera Theater partnered with Theater for the Blind to provide visually impaired audience members with audio description. Further, during scenes set in the garden, the theater was filled with floral fragrances. Truly, Iolanta was a feast for all of the senses.
Iolanta tells the story of a princess who has been blind from birth. Hidden away from the world in a beautiful, secret garden, Iolanta (soprano Katherine Weber) has been cared for and serenaded by her attendants, but she has never been told that she is blind or that she is a princess. She has a vague sense of unhappiness. King Rene has ordered that she not be told nor shall anyone tell her betrothed, Duke Robert.
Ibn-Hakia, a famed physician, tells the King that he believes that Iolanta’s blindness can be cured, but first she must been informed of her blindness. The King refuses the treatment, fearing for her happiness if the cure should fail after she has learned what she is missing.
Duke Robert and his friend, Count Vaudemont, come to seek out Robert’s betrothed, Iolanta, but he doesn’t want to marry her because he is in love with someone else. Vaudemont finds the secret garden and immediately falls hopelessly in love with Iolanta, upon seeing her sleeping. Robert thinks Vaudemont is under the spell of a sorcerer and leaves to get help. Iolanta wakes up and Vaudemont figures out that she is blind. He explains light and color to her. They fall madly in love.
The King discovers the couple. Vaudemont declares his love. Doctor says “well, now she knows, let’s try the cure!” Iolanta is unsure about whether or not she should try the cure. When the King threatens to kill Vaudemont for revealing the truth to Iolanta, she agrees to the cure and leaves with the Doctor. After they leave, the King admits that he was just trying to motivate Iolanta, cancels the marriage to Robert and gives her to Vaudemont.
Iolanta and the Doctor return. The treatment has worked and she can see. At first uncertain of her new gift, she eventually sings of the magical new world now visible to her. Everyone rejoices.
Chicago Opera Theater will continue their season with The Scarlet Ibis in February 2019 and Moby Dick in April 2019. If the lovely Iolanta is any indication of things to come, you should get your tickets for the next two shows now.
Chicago Opera Theater, Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave.