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Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky: Both Famous, But Not for Opera

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woo-1538-iolantaWhen we hear the names of certain composers, we immediately think of opera: Verdi, Rossini and Donizetti quickly come to mind. Yet there are other great composers who wrote plenty of operas -- good ones -- who are seldom thought of as "opera composers." The two Russian masters whose work features here fall into that latter category.

Both Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky displayed a lasting genius for theatrical music. Tchaikovsky's first major ballet, Swan Lake, contains some of the world's most famous music. His last one, The Nutcracker, may well be the most popular score he ever composed. Early in his career, Stravinsky wrote three blockbuster ballets -- The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite Spring -- in quick succession, and continued to write successful ballet scores for decades.

The two composers also devoted considerable creative energy to opera. Stravinsky's The Nightingale is a mesmerizing drama, and his later drama The Rake's Progress is 20th-century, operatic landmark. Tchaikovsky was even more dedicated to the opera house, composing about a dozen operas altogether, including Eugene Onegin, and The Queen of Spades. Yet both composers are far better remembered for their orchestral scores, ballets included, than for opera.

Still, perhaps we can change those reputations, at least a little, with this week's twin bill. It features Tchaikovsky's brief, fairytale opera Iolanta, which debuted under auspicious circumstances in St. Petersburg, followed by Stravinsky's atmospheric Persephone, seen for the first time in New York City.

Iolanta was part of a double commission from the Russian Imperial Theaters. Its companion piece was Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Both works premiered on the same night -- December 18, 1892 -- and the results weren't what you might expect. According to the composer, Iolanta got the better reception.

Persephone was composed in the mid-1930s, on a commission from the dancer Ida Rubenstein. Strictly speaking, the score is a melodrama -- a work featuring spoken drama accompanied by music. Actually, it's a sort of hybrid, combining melodrama with opera and ballet. Stravinsky's title character is a speaking role, but there's also a solo tenor role, and extensive music for chorus and children's choir. Plus, the actions and characters are also depicted through dance.

Still, whatever we call it, Persephone has everything an effective opera needs, including vivid settings, a complex and sympathetic principal character, and a classic story, all brought to life by a colorful and richly expressive musical score.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Iolanta and Persephone in a double bill from the Grand Theatre of Provence, as part of the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival. The stars include soprano Ekaterina Shebachenko and tenor Paul Groves, in a production led by conductor Teodor Currentzis.