WASHINGTON, February 17, 2014 – In a most unusual pairing of most unusual one-act operas, “The Met in HD” simulcast its Valentine weekend double bill of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” and Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” on February 14 to movie theaters across the country and across the world. The performances will be rebroadcast at most of these theaters this week on February 18.
Based on a fairy tale, Tchaikovsky’s opera tells the bittersweet tale of the beautiful blind princess Iolanta (Anna Netrebko) who, through the strenuous efforts of her father, King René (Ilya Bannik), is blissfully unaware that she has a handicap, having been told eyes exist only to shed tears.
Iolanta’s sheltered life, however, is abruptly undone almost by happenstance, when the dashing Duke Vaudémont (Piotr Beczala) sees her and immediately falls in love. Discovering she is blind, he violates the King’s edict by explaining this to her, sending her emotions reeling.
Infuriated, the King orders Vaudémont’s death. It’s up to the Muslim physician and mystic healer Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Azov) to solve the problem, which ultimately brings a happy ending to the story.
But, having experienced the Romantic sweep of Tchaikovsky’s last opera, the Met’s second one-act production, “Bluebeard’s Castle,” takes us in the opposite direction.
Many are familiar with the legend of Duke Bluebeard, the brooding lord of a brooding castle whose wives all seem to come to an untimely end. Bartók re-tells the story as a modernist psycho-drama in his Hungarian language one-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, originally titled “A kékszakállú herceg vára” (roughly, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.”)
With a tiny cast of two—Judith (Nadja Michael), Bluebeard’s fourth wife; and the somber Duke Bluebeard himself (Mikhail Petrenko)—Bartók’s acid-etched but still-tonal score intertwines with the characters’ voices, taking the audience on a journey of increasing horror as Judith persuades Bluebeard to open, one by one, the secret doors of his castle. Each reveals a gloomy or ultimately horrific vision. But it is by glimpsing beyond the seventh door, behind which reside the shades of Bluebeard’s murdered former wives, that Judith seals her own doom.
Why the weird pairing of these two polar-opposite operas? As part of the broadcast’s halftime interview feature, the creator and stage director of both these productions, the controversial but much-in-demand Polish director Mariusz Treliński, explained his eagerness to juxtapose these two disparate works as a way of illuminating the wonders and sorrows of love in mirror image.
Operating an arguably Slavic minor-key mode, Treliński chooses to end this diptych in tragedy rather than romance, perhaps reflecting his own view of life in his still recovering post-Communist country.
Set designer Boris Kudlička’s haunting, often creepy sets—visuals include ghostly, floating forests, trophy deer heads and skulls, and haunting images—deploy many of the same elements in each opera, knitting them together into an uncomfortable but effective whole and implying that the same vision can inspire entirely opposite results.
The imagery in “Bluebeard” is particularly unpleasant, bringing opera as close to a horror show as one will generally see. But that’s appropriate, given that Bartók’s unusual work is really a psychological exploration of the mental inscapes people hide from others, and why liberating them can often lead to personal tragedy.
Treliński’s concepts seemed more than a bit odd for a production beamed to the public on Valentine’s Day. But it was also quite provocative and extraordinarily well done from the point of stagecraft, mood, and atmospherics.
Fortunately for opera lovers, Saturday’s twin casts seemed to be into the concept, singing and acting with extraordinary skill and sensitivity.
In “Iolanta,” soprano Anna Netrebko was touching as Tchaikovsky’s unseeing heroine, and her already gorgeous instrument was in fine form, particularly in her long, passionate duet with her enchanting suitor, portrayed by the brilliant Polish tenor Piotr Beczala who was also at his ardent best.
“Iolanta” has a surprisingly large cast for a one-act opera, and each of these singers also gets quite a lot to do. As King René, the surprisingly lyrical bass, Ilya Bannik, was brooding and careful in his portrayal, the very model of a somber and serious monarch. Mr. Bannik seemed surprisingly comfortable in the role, his first at the Met, having stepped in at the last minute for scheduled bass Alexei Tanovitski who has been ill.
Aleksei Markov’s Duke Robert—Vaudémont’s best pal and actually betrothed to Iolanta, whom he does not wish to marry—is a robust and vigorous adventurer. With his magnificently heroic baritone, he projects his character convincingly in an absolutely brilliant performance of Robert’s aria roughly halfway through the performance.
Here’s a video of that aria, taken from a fairly recent production in Madrid—with French subtitles alas, but still worth a listen.
Baritone Elchin Azizov is convincing in the sympathetic role of the Muslim mystic whose duty it is to offer wise council and help bring about a happy ending for all. (This critic, at least, could also not help but wonder at this point what has happened to so alter the public face of Islam since “Iolanta’s” 1892 premiere.) Mr. Azizov’s richly elegant voice brings reason to the chaos surrounding Iolanta’s situation.
A hat tip to the Metropolitan Opera chorus as well. They sing beautifully in background throughout this opera, appearing before the audience only for Tchaikovsky’s grand finale. Oddly, however, they’re attired much like formal French waiters, oddly incongruent for this otherwise nicely put together production.
From lavishness we move toward angularity and shift from romance to fear as the curtain raises on this production’s second stanza, “Bluebeard’s Castle.”
The vocal style is utterly different in this clearly 20th century work, which was initially composed in 1911, but which its composer continued to alter before its actual Budapest premiere in the spring of 1918.
Bartók’s compositional voice is more declamatory than romantic, more crisply disassociated than warmly personal. All this is natural, of course, if only because Bartók, his brittle music and his turbulent times are far distant from those of Tchaikovsky, who lived and died in Czarist Russia.
Having heard several years ago in a semi-staged production by the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City, and once again in a minimalist production by the Washington National Opera featuring Denyce Graves and Samuel Ramey in the title roles, we’d have to give the edge to the current Met production for getting Bartók’s strange vision almost exactly right, at least in our opinion.
As Bluebeard, bass Mikhail Petrenko was grimly implacable, wielding his authoritative instrument delicately, entreatingly at times, while gradually escalating into a figure of impending doom, a figure as terrifying and immovable as the stone guest in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Against this grim, human backdrop is the fearful but insistent Judith takes a familiar 20th century female role. She realizes Bluebeard has a shady past to say the least. But she seems to feel that if she marries him, she’ll be able to become his confidante and successfully “improve” him.
As is often the case, this doesn’t exactly work, turning her story and the opera into a psychological thriller, where each piece of information Judith pries from Bluebeard, as she persuades him to open each secret door, brings her closer to her doom.
As Judith, soprano Nadja Michael proves to be as extraordinary an actress as she is a soloist. Her every move, as she slips further into Bluebeard’s horrific lair, is reminiscent of the terrorized heroines who make Hollywood film noire so tense and threatening. Her voice, initially lyrical, gradually slips into near vocalization as the meaning of the fate she has chosen begins to sink in. It’s a chilling, highly effective performance, made all the more convincing by the coldness of Mr. Petrenko’s Bluebeard.
While this Met double bill is, in the end, far from cuddly and romantic, it’s a wonderful excursion into both sides of love—the fairy tale dream and the often far less pleasant reality. The music, the singing, the sets and the atmospherics are uniquely spooky and the performances are memorable, even if you think that Bartók is not your cup of tea.
Plus, lest we forget, the Met Orchestra is in top form under the baton of Valery Gergiev, whose command of this repertoire is nothing short of superb.
There’s another chance to catch this pairing Wednesday evening. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, or if you’re up for some opera that’s far from stuffy or predictable, you should consider purchasing a ticket. Or two. For this pair of operas is best shared with a friend.
(To see and hear a sampling of this program, check out the 10-minute video below. It features the opening of “Iolanta” plus that opera’s two best-known musical moments, plus the opening of “Bluebeard,” the Door One scene unveiling Bluebeard’s torture room, and the awesome, dark vision of Bluebeard’s lands, exposed behind the fifth door and highlighted by a tremendous orchestral climax, complete with organ.)
Rating:**** (4 out of 4 stars)
The Met in HD presents Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” and Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.”
U.S. encore performance: Wednesday, February 18, 2015, 6:30 p.m. local time (all time zones) at selected theaters near you.
Ticketing: Just click here on this “Buy Tickets” button. Alternatively, For advance tickets, information and theater locations visit the Met’s website. If online ticketing isn’t available for your location, you can purchase your tickets by visiting the box office at your local participating cinema. To the best of our knowledge, ticket prices in most venues are $25, an astounding bargain for anyone who’s familiar with purchasing seats to a live performance.
Next Up: March 14: Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago,” 12:55 p.m.
Final series for this season: Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” April 25.