Seeing the Light: Iolanta at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Tchaikovsky – Iolanta (Иоланта)

René – Evgeny Stavinsky
Robert – Guriy Guryev
Count Vaudémont – Misha Didyk
Ibn-Hakaia – Luis Rodrigues
Alméric – Marco Alves dos Santos
Bertrand – Alexander Milev
Iolanta – Zarina Abaeva
Marta – Maria Luisa de Freitas
Brigitta – Carla Caramujo
Laura – Patrícia Quinta

Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Graeme Jenkins.
Concert performance.

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal.  Friday, October 1st, 2021.

Tonight’s concert performance of Iolanta brought soprano Zarina Abaeva, who caused such a sensation in La Wally here last year, back to the São Carlos.  Iolanta is a rarity – indeed the local premiere took place as recently as 2006.  Partly because it requires a large cast for a piece barely over ninety minutes in length.  Partly also due to the score, which while containing some soaring moments of Tchaikovskian lyricism, also doesn’t offer the memorable psychological insight of Onegin or Pikovaya Dama.  Hard also to get a grasp on the characters who have such little stage time in which to establish their personalities.  It’s a work certainly worth hearing though, and the São Carlos assembled a cast of Russophone, Ukrainian and Portuguese singers, under the direction of Graeme Jenkins.

Jenkins led a reading that was workmanlike and efficient.  He obtained some excellent playing from the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa, particularly in some string playing of remarkable depth and texture.  Just occasionally, there was a slight lack of unanimity in the tuning in the violins in the more rapid-fire sections, but he certainly obtained a large degree of instrumental colour from the strings as a whole.  The brass were solid all night.  The house chorus sang with agreeable blend and impressive unanimity of approach given how they were spread out in the theatre’s concert shell, the ladies in particular singing with genuinely enchanting tone.  That said I found Jenkins’ interpretation to be rather congenial and earthbound, rather than passionate and searching.  That said, when Misha Didyk’s Vaudémont and Guriy Guryev’s Robert made their entries, the evening suddenly seemed to push into another gear.

Guryev is a major talent – and a great find for the house.  His is an exceptionally handsome baritone, firm and even in emission.  He also has some wonderfully natural musical instincts, dispatching his aria with romantic ardour and warmth.  The top, as of yet, lacks a little in colour and doesn’t sound fully connected to the rest, but Guryev is very young and surely this will come with time.  I certainly can’t wait to hear his Onegin when the time comes. 

Didyk sang Vaudémont with generous force.  The São Carlos is an intimate house, with a grateful acoustic, and perhaps Didyk forgot that he wasn’t singing at the Bastille, for instance, as he certainly gave us a lot of volume that wasn’t absolutely necessary in a space of this size.  His tenor is bright and focused, and he made an effort to shade his opening number, making an attempt at a voix mixte.  The top was certainly penetrating, but required a bit of heavy lifting to get up there.  He’s certainly a passionate artist.

Abaeva sang the title role with limpid, lunar beauty of tone.  She has a fine technique, founded in a juicy bottom that soars up to a radiant top.  She also used the language to colour the tone in the most remarkable way, savouring the words, using them to project her character and the vocal line.  Just as I would love to hear Guryev’s Onegin, I would equally love to hear Abaeva’s Tatyana. 

The remaining roles reflected some judicious casting choices.  Evgeny Stavinsky sang René in a warm and generous bass, with velvety tone and long, easy lines.  The bottom lacked a little in resonance, but he sang his aria with dignity.  Luis Rodrigues sang Ibn-Hakaia confidently in a role that perhaps sat on the heavier side for his baritone, the top lacking in amplitude.  Another great find was Alexander Milev, who sang Bertrand.   A big bass sound, with beguiling complexity of tone and a bottom of seemingly unlimited depth, I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from this young man.  The cast was rounded out with an agreeably blended trio of ladies, capped by Carla Caramujo’s crystalline soprano and Patrícia Quinta’s tart, tangy mezzo.

In this Iolanta, the São Carlos has rendered us a great service – both in giving us the opportunity to hear a rarity and in introducing us to some fantastic talent.  In Abaeva, Guryev and Milev, we have singers with an enormous amount of promise, whose development I look forward to closely following over the next few years.  As always, the playing and singing of the house forces was satisfying.  Despite my reservations over Jenkins’ efficient but earthbound conducting, this was an evening that was certainly worth hearing. 

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