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Thoughts on Iolanta/The Nutcracker

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Bel Air Classiques has released the double bill from March 2016 consisting of the opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker on a two disc set. I've only had time to watch the first disc and will report back in full when I've had time to watch the second disc.

But here's a funny taster until then. Iolanta segues immediately into the party scene of The Nutcracker, in which the sujet Daniel Stokes, dressed in a brown argyle sweater and tan slacks, plays one of the party guests. At the end of the party scene, the guests leave only to return a short time later in more menacing form. When we see the Boy in the Brown Argyle Sweater again, the corps dancer Simon Le Borgne is playing him instead of Stokes. (We see Le Borgne in close-up at 2hrs 3mins and full body at 2hrs 5 mins.) At 2:06:02, we see Le Borgne again only now he's wearing a mustard-colored vest and brick-colored slacks. At 2:06:18 -- 16 seconds later -- when we see Le Borgne once again, he's back to wearing the brown argyle sweater and tan slacks. Holy Continuity Errors, Batman! 

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A few years ago saw a double bill at the Bolshoi that comprised the better known parts  of the score of the ballet followed by the Opera. No inyermezzo. During the Nutcracker music, the stage was open to the audience showing the Iolanta sets. At some point the soprano playing Iolanta got into the stage and kept wandering about during the WHOLE of the ballet score..as if in a dream, her blindness obvious . That poor woman did quite some wandering before the Opera started. It was very awkward to say the least.

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On the evening of December 18th, 1892 (December 6th O.S.), the Mariinsky Theatre premiered a Tchaikovsky double bill consisting of the one-act opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker. Of the two, Iolanta was the greater success on the night. But with the passage of time, The Nutcracker's success would come to dwarf that of Iolanta.

For the 2015-16 season at the Opera, director Stephane Lissner announced that Russian opera and theater director Dmitri Tcherniakov would be staging Iolanta and The Nutcracker as one linked production rather than two distinct productions. The original conception for the ballet portion of the evening involved five choreographers: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Edouard Lock, Arthur Pita, Liam Scarlett and then-artistic director Benjamin Millipied. In the event, only Cherkaoui, Lock and Pita would contribute to the finished version of The Nutcracker.

Filmed in March 2016, Tcherniakov's hybrid Iolanta-The Nutcracker is spread across two discs. I'll review each disc in separate posts in order to avoid one endless post.

Disc 1:

I won't dwell on Iolanta's actual plot. You can read about it here:


Instead of setting the opera's action in a "beautiful enclosed garden," Tcherniakov stages all of the action in a  tightly compressed white room. In so doing, the opera loses the romantic setting of the garden. But the change allows Tcherniakov to transition the action seamlessly from the opera to the ballet. With the conclusion of Iolanta, the room "opens up" to reveal that the opera was really an amateur theatrical put on by guests at a birthday party for the party's other guests. This is a clever theatrical trick which Tcherniakov amplifies by having the opera performers take their bows and exit stage left and right. When they return for another bow, the ballet dancers -- wearing the exact same costumes from the theatrical -- take the bows in their place. They then doff their theatrical costumes, reveal their party attire and join the party.

At this point, The Nutcracker commences. Disc 1 contains four sequences, which feature the heroine Marie (Marion Barbeau) and her interaction with Vaudemont; both a character in the opera and a shy young man (Stephane Bullion) attending the party.

A family party (Pita)

The Nutcracker starts out well enough with Arthur Pita's contribution. Set at a 1930s-era birthday party for the heroine, Pita stages entertaining social dances for both the dancers from the Opera and the other adults and children attending the party. By and large, the Opera dancers are very good mimes and there are numerous, wonderful bits of business (i.e. Adrien Couvez stroking Alice Renavand's fur stole). Pita also establishes the basic storyline -- Drosselmeyer (Nicolas Paul) pushing the shy Vaudemont toward Marie while Marie's mother (Renavand) pushes her elsewhere -- with a maximum of clarity.

The threatening guests (Lock)

Alas, the abyss opens up under this production with the next sequence. The party ends and the guests depart, Marie is alone in the semi-darkness when Vaudemont returns to retrieve the jacket he left behind. There is a brief flirtation and then a kiss. Suddenly, the formerly convivial guests return in more threatening form. Why? You've got me. There's nothing in Tcherniakov's scenario to explain what is happening. Why has Marie's mother become a malevolent force? What has happened to Drosselmeyer? Is all of this really happening or is Marie dreaming it?

Lock's choreography only compounds the unintelligibility of the scene. His means are extremely limited -- walking to-and-fro and choppy hand gestures -- and grow old fast. All of this goes nowhere for 7 1/2 minutes until an explosion (!) destroys the house. (The Opera's production staff realize an impressive stage effect here. But again -- why?)

The devastation - Marie and Vaudemont (Cherkaoui)

Waltz of snowflakes (Cherkaoui)

Marie finds her self in a desolate, wintry landscape (which evoked nuclear winter in France to me - Joyeux Noel!!!) She encounters the wounded Vaudemont and they dance a lovely little pas. (Cherkaoui, of the three choreographers, has the most substantial means at his disposal.) Vaudemont "dies" and the stage goes black. When light returns, Marie finds herself surrounded by a desolate community desperately trying to ward off the frightful cold (to which Marie remains impervious.) All of this is straight out of Pina Bausch but Cherkaoui manages to extract some moments of true beauty from an otherwise baffling scenario. (Marie's journey is like a more sinister version of Dorothy's journey in The Wizard of Oz. It grows ever darker and more surrealistic.)

In any event, the community dies and Marie finds herself standing alone and without Vaudemont. End of Disc 1.

Coming soon: Disc 2, in which a meteorite strikes Earth (really!)

Edited by miliosr
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16 hours ago, miliosr said:

Tcherniakov stages all of the action in a  tightly compressed white room.

:lol: This is Tcherniakov's standard trope. There was his notorious Evgeny Onegin at the Bolshoi which took place entirely in dining rooms, one for Acts 1 and 2, another for Act 3. Don Giovanni in Aix took place within a single wood-paneled room. Il trovatore in Brussels took place in the lobby of a seedy hotel. There was a production of Verdi's Macbeth which was unusual in that some of the scenes seemed to take place outdoors, albeit in a suburban housing development.

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20 hours ago, Josette said:

Miliosr, I am waiting with bated breath for your comments on disc 2. 

The pressure's on now! :thumbsup:

11 hours ago, volcanohunter said:

:lol: This is Tcherniakov's standard trope. There was his notorious Evgeny Onegin at the Bolshoi which took place entirely in dining rooms, one for Acts 1 and 2, another for Act 3. Don Giovanni in Aix took place within a single wood-paneled room. Il trovatore in Brussels took place in the lobby of a seedy hotel. There was a production of Verdi's Macbeth which was unusual in that some of the scenes seemed to take place outdoors, albeit in a suburban housing development.

Setting Iolanta in a tightly compressed space with bare white walls robs the opera of all romantic flavor. Given that the singers wear costumes evoking the period of early-1890s Russia, the setting is more reminiscent of a Tsarist-era hospital for someone dying of tuberculosis rather than the enchanted garden called for in the original scenario. But the simplicity of the Iolanta set does allow for the quick transition to The Nutcracker portion of the evening. 

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Iolanta/The Nutcracker - Disc 2

Recap: When last we left our beleaguered heroine Marie (Marion Barbeau), she had witnessed the "death" of her true love, Vaudemont (Stephane Bullion). She had also proven herself impervious to the baneful effects of nuclear winter in France while looking rather chic in so doing. (What this has to do with Dmitri Tcherniakov's incomprehensible scenario is anyone's guess. I prefer to think of it as a ballerina of the Paris Opera Ballet making the statement that nuclear winter is no excuse for dressing poorly and looking unkempt.)

Into the dark forest (Lock)

Playing with dolls (Lock)

The action shifts to a dark forest. (Again, this is another scenic triumph by the Opera's production staff.)  Here, Marie engages in a solo of sorts consisting of Lock's trademark walking and chopping hand gestures. (Lock relieves the monotony slightly by having Marie scratch herself as if beset by forest fleas.) Suddenly, five danseurs appear sporting the same caramel-colored suit and orange hair/wig that the real Vaudemont sported earlier. (Vaudemont's orange wig was meant to replicate the hair color of Arnold Rutkowski, who sang the part of Vaudemont in the opera.) Truly, I haven't seen so many bad wigs since Valley of the Dolls!

Lock's choreography for Marie and the five danseurs is intrinsically uninteresting and dramatically flat. We don't want to see Marie with five faux Vaudemonts who are either real or figments of her imagination. Still, in the beautifully lit gloom of the forest, there is some interest to be had in trying to identify the five danseurs (who are never seen in close-up) by their physiques and movement qualities. Some, like Adrien Couvez and Simon Le Borgne are readily identifiable.

The action shifts again to a cube-like space filled with life-sized and mobile toys and dolls. (The best one being a furry pink teddy bear who effortlessly steals every shot he/she/it is in. To the old showbiz maxim of never work with children and animals, you can add furry pink teddy bears.) In any event, Marie wanders vacantly in this sinister toy land while the danseuses of the company (now dressed as Marie) come-and-go for an interminable 12 minutes. Poor Alice Renavand gets the worst of it. As if performing Lock's repetitive minimalist choreography isn't bad enough, he inserts completely gratuitous fouettes into the mix and makes Renavand perform them in high heels.

Waltz of the flowers (Cherkaoui)

Marie and Vaudemont's Pas de deux (Cherkaoui)

Mercifully, just when things have hit rock bottom, the two best parts of this Nutcracker arrive. Marie now finds herself in a rectangular space that appears to be suspended in black space. In succession, four group of "Maries" and "Vaudemonts" arrive to waltz to Tchaikovsky's lilting music: in the first blush of youth, in early middle age (with children), in late middle age and, finally, in old age. Marie only dances in the first segment and, even then, she dances with Le Borgne-Vaudemont and not Bullion-Vaudemont. But after all the doom and gloom of the preceding segments, Cherkaoui's Waltz of the flowers is like manna from heaven. Beautiful waltzing set to beautiful music!

A harmonica player arrives on stage playing a mournful version of Tchaikovsky's theme and then, at long last, the real Vaudemont reappears. While marred by the occasional bit of ugly floor work, this is a lovely pas which allows Barbeau to display her lyrical side and Bullion to show what an attentive, solid partner he is.

Finale (Cherkaoui)

Alas, the happy ending is not to be as Vaudemont "dies" again and Marie is left alone to dance a dance of mourning. She collapses into a fit of Bauschesque shrieks as the scene changes again into a starlit night sky. Suddenly, a meteor comes hurtling toward Earth (!) Marie beckons to it as if life isn't worth living without Vaudemont. The meteor obliterates everything but doesn't oblige Marie, who finds herself back in her parents' darkened home without Vaudemont (was she ever really with him?) and crouched in the fetal position on the floor. The end!

Coming soon: miliosr's final thoughts!

Edited by miliosr
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I saw this on DVD as well. I didn't have a problem with the Iolanta staging. I think the fact that the magic takes place inside Iolanta's head is a very acceptable interpretation of the opera. I loved Sonya Yoncheva's interpretation of Iolanta. I had more of an issue with the Nutcracker, as I felt the choreography was almost non-existent.

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Iolanta/The Nutcracker - Final Thoughts

What then to make of the dance portion of this hybrid production?

I can say that Marion Barbeau gives a star-making (etoile-making?) performance as Marie; one that requires her to be on-stage for the entirety of the performance. I can say that Stephane Bullion is subtly wonderful as the social wallflower Vaudemont and partners Barbeau exquisitely. I can say that the production is a scenic marvel (the winter, the dark forest, the meteor). Most of all I can say that the Paris Opera Ballet dancers perform this material with all their collective might (much as they did with Alexander Ekman's Play.)

But so what? It's collective might applied to a director's vision rather than a choreographer's vision. Dmitri Tcherniakov is a director and scenarist and not a dancemaker. As such, he makes the mistake of asking the dance to do things it cannot do; namely, conveying complicated scenarios and complex interior states. In his notes for the DVD, Tcherniakov writes, "Marie realizes that everything that happened to her does not exist in reality. But we already see Marie in a completely different way." But that's precisely what we don't see at the end because the dances (what there are of them) and the mime cannot tell us how Marie has changed because of her experiences (either real or imagined.) All we see at the end is her curled up on the floor. Is this because she found Vaudemont and then lost him twice? Or is she reduced to the fetal position because she just experienced an epic hallucination? Impossible to know what -- if any -- self-discovery Marie has achieved from what we see on-stage.

I can't add much more to what I already wrote regarding the three choreographer debacle other than to say that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui fares the best and Edouard Lock fares the worst. Probably the one true "winner" in all this was Benjamin Millepied, who may have understood that this production was a no-win one in terms of dance and wisely removed himself from it. (See -- I can say something nice about Millepied!)

In any event, this production will be back for nine performances in May.

Edited by miliosr
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Yes I think the "director cut"  was the main complain about this production as the choreographers had no word to say about the whole scenario. Everything was written by Tcherniakov, (even the costumes were imposed) and the choreographers had just to fill the spaces indicated. Cherkaoui had the easiest part with the pas de deux, I would not blame Lock or Pita. Pita, up to me is the less interesting because Lock at least could impose his movements that I personally like a lot...

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miliosr, Thank you so much for your program notes on this performance. I'm late to the party, but I was down with a winter virus last week and finally watched Iolanta/The Nutcracker whilst recovering. I have to admit that I fast-forwarded through much of Iolanta because I was much more interested in the dancing, but I enjoyed this version of The Nutcracker more than I expected to. Maybe part of it is just a welcome change of pace from yet another traditional Nutcracker--and far enough into the calendar from the Christmas holidays--but I was intrigued by the staging and the choreography, odd as it was in places.

I especially enjoyed Arthur Pita's interpretation of the family party scene, which I usually find to be rather dull. The social dances and interplay between characters had me imagining all sort of back stories and family dramas. I adored the surreal/creepy doll scene by Lock...I couldn't look away. I swear that I have had dreams like that...not really nightmares but rather unsettling and vaguely menacing. The nuclear winter scene, the stagecraft of the forest scene, the waltz of the flowers/pas de deux with the characters of different ages...so much creativity and different interpretations, with enough classical technique for my personal tastes and the lovely score to tie it together. I will definitely watch many more times to pick up details. :)

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I came back here to recommend this production all over again! I revisited it recently and found the Nutcracker portion to be a perfect pandemic watch (I skipped the opera again).

I felt that the familiarity of the Nutcracker score and the oddness/darkness of this production mirrored the decontextualized aspect of life during the pandemic/under quarantine...the coexistence of the familiar and mundane in our suddenly more constrained and quotidian "home life and work" routine and the infinite strangeness and vaguely threatening swirl of the pandemic and world events raging just outside and all around.  This time, the art was validating and comforting and unsettling to me all at once.

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