Iolanta and Nutcracker were commissioned from Tchaikovsky by the Mariinsky Theatre management. It is thought that the idea of uniting the one act opera and two act ballet into a single production to be shown on the same evening originated with the then director of the Imperial Theatres Ivan Vsevolozhsky.

In July 1891 Tchaikovsky began composing the music for Iolanta, starting off with the Iolanta and Vaudemont duet. He was full of enthusiasm. The composer wrote to his brother Modest: "I'm in love more than ever with the subject of Iolanta, and your libretto is quite perfect… Oh yes, I will write an opera such that the audiences will weep". By September the music to all intents and purposes was completed and by December – so was the orchestration.

The première of Iolanta (and of the ballet Nutcracker) took place at the Mariinsky Theatre on 6 December 1892. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatoly: "The opera and ballet had great success yesterday. The opera in particular was to everyone's liking. The night before we had a rehearsal with the Emperor. He was enraptured, called me to the box and uttered a mass of sympathetic words. Both were staged magnificently, and the ballet was even too magnificent: the eyes tire of such sumptuousness".

A year later, on 11 November 1893, Iolanta was given its first performance at the Bolshoi Theatre. In all there have been six productions of Iolanta at the Bolshoi (in 1893, 1899, 1917, 1940, 1974 and 1997).

The production is by Sergey Zhenovach, the artistic director of The Theatre Art Studio, and an acknowledged maître of giving major works of literature a new lease of life on stage. Working with him on the production were his permanent co-authors: scenographer Alexander Borovsky and lighting designer Damir Ismagilov.

Sergey Zhenovach:

The story is indeed very poetical. The first thing one has to avoid at all costs in Iolanta is a homespun, naturalistic interpretation. As soon as the action begins to acquire a homespun character, this subtle, fragile, naïve opera simply disintegrates. It was therefore vital that our production be poetical. Our aim was to locate a real, human story through these poetic images: what is light, what is darkness, what is blindness and the recovery of sight, what are these “two worlds of the flesh and of the spirit”? We had above all to find a figurative, spatial expression of the poetic language of the opera. To create a world of darkness and a world of light.

Iolanta is a very pure, naïve, radiant opera, but by no means as simple as it seems. In terms of character, I would compare it to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. It is an imaginary tale with philosophical meaning, and a serious subtext. And its philosophical content today is very distinct and clear.