Iolanta | Francesca da Rimini

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Thursday 19 January 2012
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Iolanta, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's final opera, and Sergei Rachmaninoff's Francesca da Rimini are two love stories that differ not only on account of the endings – one happy, one sad – but especially on account of the diametrically opposed relationship to the power of God: Iolanta has a fairytale ending, closing with rapturous songs in praise of God, whereas the last scene of Francesca da Rimini shows the damned souls in hell – and doubts begin to surface about divine justice, because guilt is not readily apparent to us here.

Princess Iolanta has been blind since birth. Her father, King René, decreed that no one should reveal this to her. A physician believes that an operation could help her, but she would have to know that she is blind and the wish to see would have to come from her. Two men enter Iolanta's park: the man chosen to be her husband, Robert of Burgundy, and the knight Vaudémont. In conversation with the knight, Iolanta realises what it means to see and that she is unable to do this. Because of this revelation, René wants to kill Vaudémont. In order to save him, Iolanta agrees to have the operation. It is successful, Vaudémont is permitted to live and marry Iolanta.

In the second circle of the Inferno (fifth canto) Dante and Virgil, on their journey through the Hereafter, discover two souls whose torment is particularly severe: Francesca and Paolo. Francesca was the wife of the deformed warrior Lanceotto. In order to persuade her to marry him, he had sent his handsome brother Paolo to court her on his behalf. It was not until later that she discovered whom she had really married. Lanceotto, however, was plagued by jealousy: he pretended to leave Francesca and Paolo alone, caught them kissing and killed them both. The souls of the two lovers are swept away by the whirlwind of the Inferno.

In their atmospheric evocations both composers allow their full brilliance to unfold. The works are fin-de-siècle masterpieces: Iolanta's garden is, musically, a miniature Garden of Eden. In this fully scored idyll the Fall of Man occurs in reverse, as it were. Through love, Iolanta comes to recognise light and darkness. Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, creates an overwhelming, roaring Inferno with an unusual choral part and paints polished psychological portraits of three people left at each other's mercy in claustrophobic, emotional torment.