Insiders Review of Iolanta at Tri-Cities Opera…

For what it’s worth.

picture by Randy Cummings

I am the scenic designer and painter for the Tri-Cities Opera production of Iolanta. That is not really relevant to this review. It sounds strange to say, I know, but it is true — more true of this opera, perhaps, because it is one place, one location, and one where the blind, ignorant, princess has been living since youth. I did not even properly watch the full opera until opening night tonight, with the rest of the audience.

I have never heard an opera in Russian before tonight. It was novel and very, very beautiful. There is a particularly lovely bit early in the opera when the nurse and the attendants sing a lullaby to the princess. I stopped concerning myself with the words translated to the super title board, lay my head on my belovedest’s shoulder, and just floated on the music. There is something deeply expressive about the long, melodic vowels interspersed with rolling consonants. The angry words sound downright scary and the happy songs are lilting things.

When folks would ask me, “This opera you are doing, what is it about?” I would answer: “It is about a princess who is blind and does not know that she is blind or that she is a princess.”

Abigail Rethwisch plays the princess and she nails playing blind. She nails it so well that, honestly, you just stop thinking about it after a few minutes. You simply accept that she is blind and start listening to her sing and watching the emotions play on her face — which they do: Constantly and in that unselfconscious way of someone who has never seen themselves in a mirror. When she is happy it almost seems that you could turn out the lights and watch the show to her glow.

All the singers can sing well. Always a good thing to be able to truthfully say. This is a talented group of singers, in that hazy in-between place of having successfully emerged from master’s programs and not yet professionally established. Some of the music is a bit repetitive and some of the singing might have been more varied in intensity to make it less so, but I found that when the singing started to bore me, the single piano accompanying them drew my attention. Music director Yelena Kurdina plays with amazing grace and flow.

To me, in a large theatre, the music all melts together. I do not have an ear that pick out the french horn apart from the trumpet, the flute from the clarinet in such a big space. It was something refreshing to hear just the piano and the singers in such a small space.

The director, James Kenon Mitchell, staged the whole thing in three days and spent the remaining weeks of rehearsal on acting. It shows. There is a slow, deliberate quality of the movements of the singers that works with the piece and gives it a sort of surreal quality. The costumes and makeup design reflect the same sort of visual conceptualization and surrealism.

Perhaps I shall put into words the concepts that I was endeavoring to infuse into the set and some of the influences that got me there, but not here.

My belovedest one stated on the drive home that every one of them was on it, every moment: “When Iolanta was telling the whole crew about how he told her about light and beauty and seeing,” he said, “You could watch the king (Andrew Hiers)getting angrier and angrier, and the physician (Jake Stamatis) getting more and more hopeful, and the nurse (Lindsay Brown)getting more and more upset. That nurse looked so upset at the beginning, I just wanted to run up and hug her.”

For the record, he restrained himself.

Finally, it is a short opera.

I thought it was 45 minutes long (in retrospect, I’ve no idea where I pulled that number from) which is what I told my belovedest. When we got to the Clinton Street Opera Center he pointed to a sign: “Iolanta runs 95 minutes with no intermission.” I shrugged.

After the opera, he turned to me and said, “I can see why you thought it was 45 minutes long. Just when you start to think that they are getting into the complicated bit, they wrap it up. It didn’t feel like an hour and half.”

Perhaps that is the best compliment an opera can get:

\In spite of sitting in a mildly chilly hall and in less than comfortable folding chairs, the story and the acting and music and the magic made it feel like a much shorter time than it was — just a breath, just a dream.

I recommend it.

For what that is worth.

What: “Iolanta” with English surtitles

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Tri-Cities Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton

Tickets: $45 and $35; call 772–0400 or go online to to purchase.

For myself and for these I say: It was an honor to create a small world for these young, talented singers to play in. It was a pleasure to work with the director, James, and the stage managers, Anna and Cindy, and the master carpenter, Shawn, and all of us doing everything we could to make it all come together. I am honored to be the first designer to create in the new Savoca-Hibbit Hall.

Credit where it’s due: Scenic Design by AmarA*jk, Scenic painting by AmarA, roses & greenery by jk, sign by Kathleen Gates Yonkin, Lighting by Craig Saeger, Costumes by Janna