At the 1892 première of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and The Nutcracker, it was the opera which scored the bigger hit with the critics, even though it’s the ballet which has become a repertory staple and most companies’ Christmas cash cow. The opera is rightly enjoying a mini-resurgence. Its plot may read as saccharine, but it’s truly one of Tchaikovsky’s most moving scores. Trying to find a partner for this lengthy one-acter is tricky. For this new staging at Opéra de Paris, enfant terrible Dmitri Tcherniakov has returned to the original pairing. This time, the opera again triumphs but the ballet flounders.

Sonya Yoncheva (Iolanta), Vito Priante (Ibn-Hakia), Marion Barbeau (Marie) et al © Agathe Poupeney | Opéra National de Paris
Sonya Yoncheva (Iolanta), Vito Priante (Ibn-Hakia), Marion Barbeau (Marie) et al
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra National de Paris

Iolanta tells the story of the king of Provence’s daughter, who is blind. King René has forbidden anyone from revealing the truth. When two young knights – her intended bridegroom and his best friend – stumble into the castle, Iolanta falls in love and discovers the truth about her sight. Crucially, this gives her the determination that the physician Ibn-Hakia deems necessary for successful treatment and she is cured, the opera culminating in a joyous hymn of praise.

Played out in a voice-sapping box depicting a cream drawing room, Tcherniakov directs a convincing production. The interior setting rubs against the story – there’s precious little sunlight to dazzle Iolanta’s eyes at the end – but there are neat touches too. For example, Ibn-Hakia – who doubles as the manipulative Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker – engineers the arrival of the young knights.

Sonya Yoncheva (Iolanta) and Arnold Rutkowski ((Vaudémont) © Agathe Poupeney | Opéra National de Paris
Sonya Yoncheva (Iolanta) and Arnold Rutkowski ((Vaudémont)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra National de Paris

Sonya Yoncheva triumphed as Iolanta. Her lyric soprano has a creamy lower register, yet has clarity and strength at the top. She is also a deeply affecting actress, playing ‘blind’ totally convincingly. The scene where Vaudémont discovers her blindness – when he asks her to pick a red rose and she plucks a white one – was desperately moving. Arnold Rutkowski had a pleasant, reedy tenor as Vaudémont, not quite blooming on high notes, while baritone Andrei Zhilikhovsky’s loutish Robert (Iolanta’s intended) was gloriously sung. Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s warm bass impressed, just lacking the lowest notes in King René’s (admittedly fiendishly low) aria.

Vito Priante’s supple bass-baritone negotiated Ibn-Hakia’s Moorish arabesques and there was luxury veteran casting in Elena Zaremba and Gennady Bezzubenkov. Anna Patalong made a notable Paris debut as Brigitta. Alain Altinoglu conducted a passionate warm account. 

ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a grislier tale than the one Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa put on the stage of the Mariinsky in 1892. There’s a case, then, for Tcherniakov casting Petipa aside and turning it darker... and they don’t come much darker than a meteorite crashing into your birthday party! It’s at Marie’s party that Iolanta is being performed by friends and relations – a tenuous link if ever there was one – and she falls for the singer playing Vaudémont. Midnight’s chimes bring back the guests to prey on the young couple, then the meteor strikes. The Land of Snow is a post-apocalyptic scene, the Kingdom of Sweets a hallucinogenic nightmare. Forget sugar plums, this Nutcracker tastes of ash and acid.

Marion Barbeau (Marie) and Stéphane Bullion (Vaudémont) © Agathe Poupeney | Opéra National de Paris
Marion Barbeau (Marie) and Stéphane Bullion (Vaudémont)
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra National de Paris

Choreographic duties were shared between Arthur Pita, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Édouard Lock, following Tcherniakov’s new synopsis. How much control each had only history will relate, but the results felt piecemeal and much of the choreography was lame, hobbled by the concept. Of the five original choreographers, Benjamin Millepied and Liam Scarlett both withdrew from this production. Pita’s party scene was poor, reliant on cheesy 1970s disco moves and children’s games: boy meets girl during Musical Statues. And what is it with choreographers and chairs? Nearly as bad as opera directors.

Lock’s Kingdom of Sweets divertissement was risible. Giant dolls barely capable of movement – penguins, cosmonauts – toddled about the stage while dancers dressed as Marie’s doubles gyrated between them: a Nutcracker where not one of the divertissement raised any applause. I prefer to draw a veil over the giant hippopotamus. The best work came from Cherkaoui, responsible for a touching Act II pas de deux and for the Waltz of the Flowers – danced by Marie and Vaudémont doubles who age as the music whirrs on. Cherkaoui also choreographed the Act I pas de deux, which contained beautiful lifts, but when the stage is thickly littered with debris it leaves little room for real footwork.

<i>Nutcracker</i> divertissement © Agathe Poupeney | Opéra National de Paris
Nutcracker divertissement
© Agathe Poupeney | Opéra National de Paris

Altinoglu's conducting raced along excitingly, without having to be mindful of any classical ballet considerations. Marion Barbeau acted compellingly as Marie, who also appears in Iolanta (as does Yoncheva – briefly – in Nutcracker). Graceful in hold, an affecting teen falling in love or breaking down in self-mutilating desperation, Barbeau impressed. Stéphane Bullion was the shy Vaudémont, Alice Renavand full of haughty menace as Marie’s mother. Despite their best efforts though, they were hampered by the choreography, even if Tcherniakov’s concept had merit. A bitter disappointment, especially after such a wonderful Iolanta. You win some, you lose some, but rarely on the same evening.