Opera: Iolanta, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Keith Bruce, five stars

THE transformation Scottish Opera music director Stuart Stratford has initiated in the opera orchestra’s Sunday afternoon concert series reached something of a peak with this realisation of Tchaikovsky’s last opera, a 90-minute one-acter that has its origins in a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a princess who doesn’t know that she is blind because of the existence of vision as one of our senses has been kept a secret from her.

For a one-off performance, this was sumptuously cast, with five native Russian speakers among the ten principals and regulars from the Bolshoi and Mariinsky companies joining Scottish Opera Emerging artist Alexey Gusev and soprano Gulnara Shafigullina, who is currently singing Violetta in the touring production of La traviata, in the title role.

It is a very different part for her, and she acted it beautifully in a staging by Jack Furness which made as much as possible of the limitations of concert performance and yet allowed the singers to stand and sing out when that was the best option. Gusev – one of three Alexeys in the cast, which must have made rehearsals confusing – grabbed his opening vocal solo as the princess’s intended with great style, followed swiftly by tenor Alexey Dolgov making the most of his aria as the Knight who wins the fair lady, after he has let the cat out of the bag about her disability. Add in Alexei Tanovitski’s protective father boasting a rich bass with the consistency of molasses and it was a fine showcase for male voices, even if the men of the chorus had nothing to do until ten minutes before the end.

There was great work from the orchestra too, with guest principals in the winds and on cello making important contributions in a score that is surely up there with some of the best music Tchaikovsky wrote. In these hands it was clear that he and librettist brother Modest fashioned something genuinely profound and thoughtful from their source material – if they had made it a bit longer it would probably be seen and heard more often.