Iolanta and Francesca da Rimini work particularly well as a double bill because both works share the theme of lovers who find themselves at the mercy of possessive forces. Iolanta's domineering father ultimately yields in Tchaikovsky's opera, but in Rachmaninov's the deceitful Lanceotto is not so accommodating. In the Theater an der Wien’s new production the emphasis is on storytelling, which director Stephen Lawless does effectively in a straightforward staging of Iolanta and a not-unexpected updating of Francesca. Taken as whole – which, in connecting the two operas, Lawless tries to do – this is really not a bad production. But in between the rather static blocking for long durations of Iolanta and the fuss Lawless makes of his fancy set in Francesca, one sensed that he might have been a little more inventive.

Olga Mykytenko (Iolanta), Saimir Pirgu (Godefroy de Vaudémont), Ensemble & Arnold Schoenberg Chor, © Armin Bardel
Olga Mykytenko (Iolanta), Saimir Pirgu (Godefroy de Vaudémont), Ensemble & Arnold Schoenberg Chor,
© Armin Bardel

Contained within a spherical cosmonaut’s capsule, the world created for the blind Iolanta is a fairytale domain managed by a benign sisterly order – perfectly applicable imagery if not particularly striking. But rotating this hidden world out of sight created an access problem for other characters, including the physician who believes he can cure blindness and Iolanta’s love interest, Vaudémont. Solving this involved clumsily wheeling warehouse ladders onstage with mildly irritating regularity. Within the capsule, quite a lot of the blocking could have done with more movement. There was also a moment of oddness when the physician smiled wickedly as Iolanta’s father threatened Vaudémont with death should the operation go wrong. I can’t imagine it would be in his personal interest for this to happen.

But detail elsewhere was unobjectionable: in a nod to plot development, Lawless opens with a sequence in which the sisters present Iolanta with bouquets of white roses that don’t pass muster (in the story Vaudémont discovers her blindness when she is unable to distinguish between red and white roses), and Iolanta wears a red petticoat under her white dress which is revealed once the operation is successful. Lawless’s best work was, however, his nuanced direction of Iolanta, whose blindness was never less than credible. Olga Mykytenko’s performance as a woman weakened by the claustrophobia of her manufactured world, and equally curious at and scared by the thought of what she is missing, was a theatrical tour de force.

The light at the end of Iolanta got prematurely snuffed out as Lawless filled the stage with secret police, his Francesca da Rimini calling card. And so after the interval we were plunged into the drabness and arbitrary brutality of a Stalinist dystopia, a place where shivering political prisoners march up and down gangplanks and fight over rags. Lanceotto, the spurned husband of Francesca, is a fearsome general who is used to barking his orders through a megaphone and having them obeyed. But not by Francesca, who quickly rebels, absconding to a Soviet university library (appropriately the Sputnik capsule from earlier making its return) and wising up on the adulterous tale of Lancelot and Guinevere with Paolo, Lanceotto’s brother. And one thing leads to another, as the Sputnik’s excitable whizzing around the stage made all too abundantly clear. But the Stasi have been eavesdropping during the incriminating love duet and as the secret police break through the bookshelves Francesca yields to her fate by covering her eyes. This was an intentional reference to Iolanta, though it was not clear why one opera should upstage the other at its most devastating point.

Olga Mykytenko put in another strong acting performance as the headstrong and passionate Francesca, and was also ideally cast as a singer, pushing a more dramatic sound than in Iolanta, where her voice had been lighter in colour if no less powerful. There were a couple of moments when her top notes sounded either slightly shrill or sharp, but vocal production was impressively secure overall and Mykytenko’s way with the text and musical phrasing captivated from start to finish.

The dramatic force of Mykytenko’s soprano made for fireworks when coupled with the brilliance of Saimar Pirgu’s top notes in the Francesca da Rimini love duet. His bright tenor was also memorable in Iolanta, though some moments could have done with softer tone and less vibrato. Dalibor Jenis really shone in his aria but otherwise seemed to be hiding his darker tone under a bushel for much of Iolanta. Ladislav Elgr was also lacking vocal presence in contrast to when I’ve heard him previously. Put in an anonymizing officer’s uniform and not given much direction, he didn’t really register as Dante in Francesca either. Dmitri Beloselsky’s robust, deep tone was ideal for Francesca and a little too booming and unvaryingly loud for Iolanta.

Vassily Sinaisky conducted a beautifully flowing and delicate Iolanta. But the Rachmaninov was a little too turgid and muddy in places, particularly at the beginning. Some of the volume from the roof-raising chorus which closes Iolanta might also have been redistributed to the end of Francesca, which seemed oddly lacking in power and drama by comparison. But otherwise, yet another strong contribution from the ORF RSO Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor.