Lyric opera in 1 act, Op. 69 (1891).
The opera has one act:
The setting is a beautiful garden on the estate of King René of Provence, in the mountains of southern France, in the fifteenth century:
Princess Iolanta, the King’s daughter, has been blind from birth, and lives in a castle in isolated splendour. She has never been allowed to know that she is different from other people, or even that she is a princess. Her friends bring her flowers and sing her to sleep. Almerik, the King’s armour bearer, announces the King’s arrival and Bertrand, the palace gatekeeper, warns him not to speak of light in Iolanta’s presence, or to tell her that her father is the King. Iolanta is betrothed to Robert, Duke of Burgundy, who does not know of her blindness. The King brings a Moorish doctor, Ibn-Hakia, who insists that Iolanta must learn of her disability and wish to see, before he can treat her. The King firmly refuses. At nightfall two knights arrive to the castle. One of them is Robert, and the other is his comrade in arms, Count Vaudemont. They stumble into Iolanta’s garden, ignoring the signs warning them to keep out. Robert is in love with someone else, and hopes that the King will release him from his vow. Vaudemont sees Iolanta, and falls in love with her. Robert fears that she is a sorceress, and goes off to gather his troops. Iolanta picks flowers for Vaudemont, but gives him white ones when he asks for red. He realizes she is blind and attempts to explain sight to her. They are discovered. Vaudemont swears he loves Iolanta, whether she is blind or not. Her desire to see is not strong enough, so the King threatens to execute Vaudemont if the treatment is unsuccessful. After the treatment has begun, the King releases Vaudemont, revealing that the threat was only an attempt to increase his daughter’s desire to see. Robert arrives and admits that he loves another. The King releases him from his promise and gives Iolanta to Vaudemont. When the bandages are removed from her eyes, Iolanta can see her surroundings. General rejoicing.
The Tchaikovsky Handbook, vol. 1 (2002), p. 88
Composed in July–early September 1891 at Maydanovo. The orchestration was made at the same place in October–November 1891 (except the orchestration for the overture, which was completed in December 1891).
As early as 1883–84 Tchaikovsky conceived the idea of writing the opera Iolanta . The composer himself mentioned that in an interview given to the journal Petersburg Life (see TH 324): "Some eight years ago I came across an issue of The Russian Messenger , that featured a one act play by a Danish writer Henrik Hertz translated by F. Miller, entitled King René's Daughter. The story had charmed me by its poetry, originality, and an abundance of lyrical scenes. I then made up my mind to set it to music. Due to various obstacles, however, it was only last year that I could realize my decision" .
Tchaikovsky was charmed not only by the "poetry, originality and abundance of lyrical scenes" in Hertz's play, but also by the concept of vitality, upon which the play is based. In 1891 Karl Valts suggested to him that a story of a Japanese fairy tale Watanabe be used as a plot for an opera-ballet. The composer had declined the suggestion: “…another difficulty for me being that in its story an important role is given to the absence of light and sun. And this exactly the pivotal concept in the plot of the opera I have just written"  .
The composer's interest in the subject, stirred by his reading of Hertz’s play in the early 1880s, continued. In April 1888 a series of debuts by young Moscow actors took place, and King’s René's Daughter was staged for the debut of Yelena Leshkovskaya. Tchaikovsky attended this performance, which was produced at the Maly Theatre once only on 29 April/10 May . In 1925 in a letter to Vasily Fyodorov, Aleksandr Yuzhin wrote the following description of Leshkovskaya: "Although still a girl, she projected a manifestly tragic power, one of her debut performances being in Iolanta. P. I. Tchaikovsky told me that he was indebted to her for his resolve to write an opera based on this story. "The only snag being," he added, "I doubt that anyone could sing my Iolanta as well as Leshkovskaya plays that part"  . In April–May 1888 the Director of the Imperial Theatres Ivan Vsevolozhsky visited Moscow to attend the debut performances of the young actors. Presumably he would have met Tchaikovsky there, and discussed Iolanta with him .
This is confirmed in a letter from Tchaikovsky to Désirée Artôt-Padilla of 25 February/9 March 1890: "I must definitely write a Russian opera, based on a poem which has been in my possession for two years already; and which I have given my word of honour to write" .
On 24 December 1890/5 January 1891 the composer informed Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov that the directorate of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres had commissioned him to write a one act opera and a two acts ballet (for the 1891/92 season) . The final negotiations with the management board were held at the end of January  . The commissioned ballet was based on the fairy tale The Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffmann, and the opera on the one act play King René's Daughter by Heinrich Hertz. According to Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer did not like much the story of The Nutcracker. As regards to the opera subject, however, "he chose it himself, but not having yet a libretto, he could not know to what degree he would be satisfied with it"  .
From January 1891 onwards Tchaikovsky urged his brother Modest to write the libretto for the opera: "Have you been thinking about the libretto for King René's Daughter? It is conceivable that I should eventually travel to Italy to compose the opera. And by the end of January I must have the libretto in my hands"  . But on 22 January/3 February, in a letter to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, the composer wrote that he had decided "not to travel abroad, but to stay here [at Frolovskoye] for a couple of months to work well. In April though I will travel to America" .
In February, Tchaikovsky began to compose The Nutcracker. But he had failed to commence work on the opera before his departure: "I'll try to work on the steamer. Even on my way here I did a bit of writing on the ballet", the composer wrote on 8/20 March 1891 from Berlin to Anatoly Tchaikovsky. "The main thing being to get the ballet out of the way; the opera though is so captivating, and I like its story so much, that give me just a couple of weeks of peace and quiet and I'll almost certainly finish it on time"  .
However, Tchaikovsky failed to finish the opera and the ballet on time for the 1891/92 season. Conscious of the complete impossibility of finishing the work he had commenced on time, while on the concert tour to America, the composer asked Ivan Vsevolozhsky if he could postpone the completion of the opera and ballet scores until the spring of the following year  . The composer wrote about the subject of the opera in this letter: "this subject is splendid for the music, and warms me and inspires me to such a level that I have no doubt of its success, so long as this opera should not be a product of stress and haste". And Tchaikovsky asked for permission "to turn over… in the spring of next year the scores of the opera and ballet, fulfilling all the expectations you have of me. I should complete my tour of America without experiencing torments, doubts and apprehensions; return home restful and relaxed after the plethora of emotions I experienced in Paris and America, and start working quietly with love, writing two masterpieces (pardon my immodesty)"  .
In a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky of 3/15 April 1891, the composer complained that he was "...tormented by an awareness that it is totally impossible to complete well the work I have engaged myself to do", because the characters from The Nutcracker and King René's Daughter had transformed for him "into some sort of horrific, feverish nightmares… By now I have reached a state that I hate even King René's Daughter. But the whole point is that I should love it!!! … I feel though that I can make a masterpiece out of King René's Daughter—but not while I'm in this state"  .
Responding to a letter from his alarmed brother Modest, the composer wrote: "You misunderstood my letter… I'm in love more than ever with the subject of Iolanta, and your libretto is quite perfect. But when in Rouen, coming up with musical pictures of gingerbread, soldiers, dolls, etc., I saw that I still had to do a lot on work on the ballet before I could take care of the opera. When I had realized that I would not be able to work on the way to America, or while I was there, or on the return journey—then I became engulfed in despair, feeling a complete inability to fulfil my commitment as required. At that very moment I stopped loving Iolanta, and so that I might regain my passion I decided to renounce her. Only after renouncing her, could I fall in love with her again. Oh yes, I will write an opera such that the audiences will weep—but only in the 1892/93 season" .
On 9/21 May Tchaikovsky left New York, arriving in Saint Petersburg on 20 May/1 June. On 29 May/10 June he returned to Maydanovo, and the following day began work on Act II of The Nutcracker . Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Ippolit from Maydanovo: "Although I was given an excellent reception in New York, and I saw a lot of interesting things in America, I was longing to come home. And I cannot express how happy I was to find myself back in Russia. Now I will be hard at work; carrying out my promise to write an opera and a ballet for the 1892/93 season; besides that I have to write several long-postponed compositions" .
Finishing the sketches for the ballet on 24 June/5 July, Tchaikovsky wrote that he intended to spend three days "on the proofs of various arrangements and old re-edited scores, and then to leave on 28 June to spend three days in Saint Petersburg, and on my return from there to start work on the opera" .
On 27 June/9 July, wrote: "... a strong doubt had crept into my mind on whether my creative abilities are sufficient, and this doubt torments me and causes depression. The ballet I wrote with an effort, sensing a decline in my visualization ability. We shall see how I would get on with the opera. If I see that it turns out poorly, despite an excellent and very appealing story, then perhaps I shall give up writing. I am living through some kind of a crisis. Either I shall overcome it and continue to use up music notepaper for a few more years, or I will lay down my weapons"  .
On 8/20 July the composer wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "As soon as I have replied to all my letters, I shall start working zealously on the opera. If all goes smoothly I hope to complete the draft within a month…" .
And so the composition of the music for Iolanta began only in early/mid July. By the composer's own admission, the work initially progressed "very slowly, with significant difficulties", with a feeling that he was about to repeat himself . Another commitment had also caused some distraction: proof-reading the new edition of Yevgeny Onegin, which Tchaikovsky finished on 19/31 July .
According to chronological notes among the manuscripts of the sketches, the composer did the most prolific work on Iolanta on 23 July/4 August and 24 July/5 August.
On 22 July/3 August, while at Maydanovo, the composer wrote to Vladimir Davydov: ”Everything depends on Iolanta. Until now it progressed in a slow, sluggish way, chiefly because alongside it I had to do intolerable, exhausting work—correcting the full score of Yevgeny Onegin, which Jurgenson is publishing again... This task has been the bane of my life. At last I finished it, took it to Moscow, and have now returned to dedicate all my time to the opera. By the way, tell Modest that the more I'm absorbed in writing music for Iolanta, the more I admire the quality of his libretto. It is outstanding work, and the verses are in places very, very beautiful. And so when I've enjoyed my fill of composition without disturbance, or when I've pushed it forward to such a point that I can rest easily—God willing—in around three weeks I will go to Kamenka, calling at Nikolay Ilyich's on the way, where I'm eagerly awaited" .
By 24 July/5 August the seventh and a part of the eighth scenes were written. In a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky of 25 July/6 August the composer wrote: "The libretto is splendid. There is one shortcoming, which has nothing to do with you. I find that between the duet about light and the end we hear too little music—it's all explanation of the action. I'm afraid this might be boring. Yet it's possible that I'm mistaken. I started not from the beginning, but from the scene between Iolanta and Vaudemont. You did an outstanding job on this scene, and the music could have been magnificent, but it seems to me that I did not do it particularly well. The most awful thing is that I have a tendency towards repeating myself, and a lot in this scene has turned out similar to The Enchantress?!! But we shall see. I am doubting myself more and more. But perhaps this stems from a more general depression, and I should temporarily set aside the theatre and write symphonies, piano pieces, quartets, etc. I'm tired of writing operas and ballets, but haven't yet run completely out of steam. At least I hope that's the case. Strangely enough while I was writing the ballet, I thought that it wasn't important, and I would display all my colours when starting work on the opera, and now it seems to me that the ballet is good, while the opera is not turning out particularly well. Although you know from experience that during the creative process, authors can be mistaken in the evaluation of their creations, and things which appear to be bad, sometimes are particularly good" .
On the same day he complained in a letter to Anatoly Tchaikovsky that the writing of the opera was progressing "in a sluggish and deplorable way". Then there had been a decisive new phase in the work: "Suddenly my work is been progressing well. I know now that Iolanta shall not disgrace herself"  .
On 7/19 August he wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky: "The time for me to leave for Ukolovo and Kamenka is approaching, but in the meantime Iolanta is far from finished. I shall probably delay its completion until my return … Still, very little remains Now I'm already writing the scene between the King and Ibn-Hakia. Than I only have to write the scene where Robert and Vaudemont enter and wake up Iolanta. The duet and everything else are already written. Over the past few days my work has progressed steadily, writing with ease and pleasure. I've altered the words here and there, because the rhythm did not match your verses" . The composer believed that the girls chorus 'Here you have buttercups' "has turned out to be extraordinary successful". "The lullaby has also been a success. I'm generally quite pleased with myself" .
On 13/25 August Tchaikovsky left Maydanovo for Moscow, then to Ukolovo and Kamenka, while the opera was not fully finished . Having returned to Maydanovo on 2/14 September, on 5/17 September he informed Modest Tchaikovsky: "Yesterday I completely finished the opera. Tomorrow I will set about the instrumentation of The Voyevoda" . The orchestration of the ballad was completed on 22 September/4 October, after which the orchestration of the opera was commenced. "The instrumentation of the opera is progressing, but not particularly quickly. This is essentially a grand, one act opera, and it demands a particular care", Tchaikovsky wrote on 12/24 October 1891 to Vladimir Davydov .
In a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky dated 20 October/1 November, we read: "Despite all my care, I am far from finishing Iolande (by the way, take into consideration that "Iolanta" is incorrect—it should be Iolande because it comes from French, and in French this name is Iolande) .
The greater part of the orchestration was completed by 25 October/6 November: "The full score is completely ready (i.e. that which I have sent to you), with the exception of tempi, metronome marks, and also the precise designation of the numbers", Tchaikovsky wrote to Sergey Taneyev. He promised to put all those instructions later on into the full score, as well as into the piano score being prepared by Taneyev . Tchaikovsky indicated the date he finished work on the manuscript of the full score of Iolanta: "20 November 1891, Maydanovo village". In a letter to Pyotr Jurgenson of 15/27 November 1891, Tchaikovsky wrote:" I'm finishing off the instrumentation of Iolanta" . On 9/21 December he asked Taneyev to send him the full score of Iolanta, so that he could insert the tempi. However, the overture seems not to have been orchestrated at that time, since on 14/26 December 1891 from Maydanovo he informed Modest Tchaikovsky: "here I've orchestrated the introduction to Iolanta and altered the draft of the sextet" . On 15/27 December he spent the whole day with Taneyev, "tidying up Iolanta, which is by now completely finished" .
On 6/18 March 1892 Tchaikovsky sent Pyotr Jurgenson a letter containing the details of the title page for the piano score of Iolanta . On 6/18 April he informed Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov that Iolanta was being engraved  . From mid/late April checking was commenced on Jurgenson's proofs of the opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker, which took a great deal of Tchaikovsky's time  .
On 31 December 1891/12 January 1892, while in Warsaw, the composer had written to Nikolay Konradi: "Incidentally, regarding the stories and Modest, tell him that I have found out who is the author of King René's Daughter. He is Danish, and his name is Henrick Hertz. Ought we to write to him? Anyway, we shall discuss it upon my return"  .
The vocal-piano arrangement of Iolanta was first published in late April/early May 1892 , but Tchaikovsky was dissatisfied with this edition. He was equally unhappy with an arrangement for solo piano made by Eduard Langer  . Writing to Pyotr Jurgenson on 13/25 July, the composer asked him to send over the piano score "to mark up whatever needs to be corrected for the next edition”. On 16/28 July he wrote to Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov: "I am currently staying home, proof-reading the opera and ballet in all their forms, commencing with their respective full scores. All this requires tremendous haste… I think that over the next month and a half at least, I would be busy doing nothing but this unbearably tormenting work" .
Pyotr Jurgenson was simultaneously printing the scores of the opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker, and also their various arrangements, while the composer undertook almost all the proof-reading himself. "Just imagine", the composer wrote to Sergey Taneyev on 11/23 August 1892, "that I am currently: 1) checking all three sets of proofs of the full scores of the opera and ballet; 2) amending and correcting Langer's awful two-hand arrangement; 3) making a simplified arrangement of the ballet; 4) correcting your arrangement of the ballet. As a result I have developed such a hatred, such a revulsion towards my both creations, that I do not imagine I shall ever be rid of these feelings!". In August he wrote, "...there is one more set of proofs, i.e. a foreign edition of Iolanta" .
A second edition of the vocal score of Iolanta (with words in Russian and German ) was brought out simultaneously with the full score in September 1892)  . Eduard Langer's arrangement for piano (two hands) appeared in November 1892.
On 28 August/9 September 1892 the composer wrote to Vladimir Davydov: “At last, tomorrow I will finish everything that I had to do … While I was staying with you at Vichy I could not imagine the torment that I would have to face. I could not foresee it, because never before have the scores of my operas and ballets been published prior to their staging"  .
Between 7/19 and 12/24 October, Tchaikovsky, responding to a request by Nikolay Figner, wrote an additional aria (romance) for the part of Vaudemont ("No, the charm of caresses...")  . Modest Tchaikovsky had sent him the words for this aria in a letter written back on 29 July/10 August 1892  . On this very letter from Modest the composer made the first note of a theme for the second part of the aria, having adapted his own words: "Oh come, illustrious apparition..."
On 2/14 August he wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky: "Just now I have received your letter with the text of the additional aria for Figner. It has turned out very well and I shall certainly write the music for it in any case—but not now: only when I finish my proof-checking"  .
The first performances of Iolanta and The Nutcracker took place on 6/18 December 1892 in Saint Petersburg on the stage of Mariinsky theatre. Eduard Nápravník conducted the opera, and Riccardo Drigo the ballet  . After the first performance of the opera in Saint Petersburg, Tchaikovsky wrote: "Yesterday the opera and ballet enjoyed a great success. The opera in particular was to everyone’s liking ... The productions of both the opera and ballet were superb..." . Three days later he told Anatoly about the unfavourable response of the press. "I am however quite indifferent to all that, it is not for the first time. And I know that at the end I will rise above it. Once again I am not embittered by such criticism. Nevertheless, I have been in a loathsome spirit, as I usually am, incidentally, in such circumstances. When one lives for a long time, preoccupied by the anticipation of an important event, then when the expected occurs it brings with it some sort of apathy and revulsion towards work, and a feeling of emptiness and futility in all our aspirations" .
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 101–108
This page was last updated on 02 April 2013