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Portfolio | A marriage between opera and ballet

Iolanta/The Nutcracker in rehearsal — By Dmitri Tcherniakov

From March 7th to April 1st at the Palais Garnier, Iolanta/The Nutcracker brings together opera singers and dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet for a performance which goes beyond through the usual boundaries between genres. Director Dmitri Tcherniakov explains how this extraordinary project came into being. Photographs by Agathe Poupeney and Éléna Bauer.    
Vito Priante, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Joel Lauwers, Anna Patalong, Elena Zaremba, Roman Shulakov, Paola Gardina, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Alexander Tsymbaliuk
Vito Priante, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Joel Lauwers, Anna Patalong, Elena Zaremba, Roman Shulakov, Paola Gardina, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Alexander Tsymbaliuk © Elena Bauer / OnP

From its very conception, everything coalesced in a rather unusual way. At first, it was the idea of the opera which came to me. A Russian title Since I’m rather obsessive, I’ve had a crazy goal to direct in my lifetime all the Russian operas that have been a part of me since childhood. Especially those which are underrated or unknown to European audiences. I’ve always maintained that this personal quest was very important to me.    

Paola Gardina, Sonya Yoncheva, Anna Patalong, Elena Zaremba © Éléna Bauer / OnP
Paola Gardina, Sonya Yoncheva, Anna Patalong, Elena Zaremba © Éléna Bauer / OnP © Elena Bauer / OnP

I was looking for an opera that could form a double bill with Iolanta, given that the latter couldn’t fill an evening on its own. Of course, in the back of my mind, I knew historically that Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker had been jointly commissioned by the Imperial Theatre in Saint Petersburg for their 1892 season. Who knows why but the idea of reviving the double bill at first seemed impossible: It was surely no coincidence that, over the last 25 years, there had been practically no attempts to stage the two works together.

Arnold Rutkowski, Andrei Jilihovschi, Dmitri Tcherniakov
Arnold Rutkowski, Andrei Jilihovschi, Dmitri Tcherniakov © Elena Bauer / OnP

After numerous attempts with works ranging from Rimsky-Korsakov to Schönberg, I finally had to acknowledge that it was impossible to find a better partner for Iolanta than The Nutcracker: Especially when it became clear that these two works by Tchaikovsky belong to the same world and are part of the same musical substance. When consulting the composer’s notebooks in the museum archives of the city of Klin, we noticed that the musical inspirations for Iolanta and Nutcracker cohabit on the same pages, like parts of a single entity. These were his last works for musical theatre and he composed them a year before his death: it’s the Tchaikovsky of the Sixth Symphony, and Iolanta and The Nutcracker form another tragic symphony which is spread between opera and ballet. These two very different stories are linked by music.

© Elena Bauer / OnP

This project is also the result of my desire to combine the opera and ballet genres. These two very different arts have coexisted for centuries under the same roof even if ultimately, there has been very little interaction between them. Combining them under a single theme to serve a common objective seemed like a tremendous idea to me. That’s why I made sure not to separate Iolanta from The Nutcracker with an interval: The production has a unified storyline in which the ballet picks up the relay by developing on what has already been said and heard in the opera. But it develops on another, more general level by pushing back the limits and going beyond the boundaries of the theme itself.

Danseurs du Ballet de l’Opéra
Danseurs du Ballet de l’Opéra © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

I think that for most people, the music of The Nutcracker is something more than mere “utilitarian” music intended to accompany the dances according to Marius Petipa’s precise timing. The music is greater than the subject it serves.
I hear something bigger and more far-reaching than what the stage presents to me, as if drama and dance were incapable of reaching such a summit, for lack of the necessary tools. In our production, we chose not to follow the traditional subject of the ballet inspired by the tales of Hoffmann and Dumas. The idea of inventing a new scenic setting for The Nutcracker is a consequence of the need to seek a process that captures everything we hear in the music: pain, loss, fear, plenitude, unbridled elation, fragility, heartbreak, suffocation, compassion… 

Dmitri Tcherniakov
Traduction du russe Macha Zonina

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