Sunday, February 1, 2015

From Darkness to Light and Back

Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta & Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle
Metropolitan Opera
January 29, 2015

Opening night (after snow delay)

After surviving a false alarm of a snowstorm and dodging a handful of anti-Putin protesters picketing the Lincoln Square, we made it to the Met for the opening of a double bill of two dreamy one act operas in two unique new productions at the Met.

Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta

Iolanta: Eyes are only for crying
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The story of a blind woman who has never been informed of her condition. This is Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. She has been kept in isolation by her dominating father and has lived her whole life up to now thinking that we have eyes only for crying. When an unsuspecting stranger stumbles upon her home in the forest and he spills the beans about the beauty of sight, she is overcome by shock. It is a woman’s journey from darkness into light, with extremely poetic passages, such as the need to know what to desire before being ready to receive it, as well as love’s transformative force and a lot of nice stuff about the wonders of nature made even more wonderful by the force of light. We are repeatedly reminded that light was God’s first creation, and so religious symbolism is also very present, though I wonder if it is significant that the doctor who performs the miracle of restoring Iolanta’s sight is a Muslim gentleman. The opera is a cosmopolitan affair, set in France, sung in Russian, and featuring a Moroccan doctor who invokes Allah, go figure.

Seeing the light with her heart
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The cast was pretty solid across the board. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the evening’s prince charming Vaudémont was strong and expressive, though his higher register is not the most soaring. Yet I generally prefer Beczala’s Russian performances (think last year’s Onegin) to his Italian roles (think Alfredo or the Duke), where his articulation does not always feel so natural. Russian baritone Aleksei Markov, as his friend Duke Robert, who is betrothed to Iolanta but in love with the sultry Mathilde, was the best male singer on stage. We discovered him as Germont in La Traviata last week and were really impressed by his instrument. Here his role was much more relaxed and carefree and his acting fit right in with his joyful, ardent singing as someone who is young and in love. And of course Anna Netrebko starred as Iolanta. She embodied the heroine with a remarkable innocence with her chesty voice that really flows with an effortless fluidity in Russian. It was impressive to see her succeed in this frail, tender, pure role after her uber-evil, unbridled force of nature performance as LadyMacbeth earlier this season. While the Russian soprano was vocally superb, particularly in her soaring duet with Vaudémont on the beauties of nature and light, I could not help but thinking that her voice is a touch too womanly for such a child-like character. Bass Alexei Tanovitski as the intransigent King Rene and baritone Elchin Azizov as the Moroccan doctor Ibn-Hakia were both solid grounding forces of the opera, though not particularly impressive.

The skiers arrive
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
In Tchaikovsky’s hands (and under Valery Gergiev’s baton), sung Russian is phenomenally beautiful, melodic and smooth. And considering its late romantic date (it debuted in 1892), the composer still gave us a number of moving melodic numbers, including several dramatic arias and a couple of memorable duets with tunes that really stick in your head. So much of it is really very dreamy and poetic, to the point of being a bit soporific as it plods along at a somnolent clip, despite the action packed second part of the short opera. In many ways, it reminded me of the dreaminess and symbolism of Debussy’s impressionistic masterpiece, Pelleas et Mellisande.

Trelinski's idea of paradise
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The Mariusz Trelinski’s production was a bit disjointed, in the sense that it seemed to be set in a desolate wasteland of a space in the mountains or in the woods with uprooted trees strewn about around Iolanta’s little boxy wall-less house. So the general vibe was a stark kind of sadness, yet characters entered the scene remarking what a paradise the place is. I didn’t get it. It just didn’t work. Also, what was Prince Charming doing in that get up? Beczala shows up in leg warmers and a Uniqlo ultra-lightweight futuristic ski jacket and he just didn’t seem to fit in the otherwise 1930s mountain cabin setting. Not only that but he comes toting merrily a pair of skis, even though there isn’t a lick of snow anywhere to be found. He seems to have stepped not only out of the future (a future with high-tech affordable Japanese apparel) but also out of a different season. His winter to her spring. Finally, when Iolanta is cured and happily marries, the director’s idea of a visually exuberant and joyful ending is having uprooted trees get grounded and a massive chorus of waiters pop out. Maybe I don’t get Eastern European modern sensibilities, but that really did not work as a grand finale.
Iolanta's apotheosis
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
I understand that there is some kind of profound spiritual symbolism underlying Iolanta’s trajectory from darkness and spiritual insight into the light, no matter how disappointingly stark reality is once you can actually lay your eyes on it, but I just don’t see the full extent of these concepts very compellingly played out in this particular staging of it. Maybe it’s true what Anna Netrebko says about the opera in the liner notes to her recent recording of Iolanta for Deutsche Grammophon, namely, that it is not actually necessary to stage it. The beauty comes through in just a concert performance. The music says it all. Seeing with the heart, or, in the audience’s case, with the ears, is more transformative than seeing with the eyes, especially when what we have to look at is some half-baked trendy staging. A good production should heighten the sense of the libretto and the score, it should guide the audience to a deeper understanding of the subtleties and the storyline, highlight the ideas, elevate the emotions. When a production muddles the sense it can be most distracting.

Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle

Judith steps into darkness
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
Bluebeard’s Castle could also be considered a story about a woman overcome with the desire to see, the desire to know everything about her lover whom she follows obsessively into his scary castle, abandoning all light and hope behind her, almost in a Dantesque Inferno-entering manner. Through the dark woods she traipses. Judith’s journey from light and freedom into darkness and captivity is perfectly opposite Iolanta’s, neatly justifying the Met’s choice to present these two works together.

Bluebeard's enthralling power
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
German soprano Nadja Michael was stunning as Judith. She had dynamic stage presence, was very agile (not surprisingly since she was once a competitive swimmer), and managed to bring this character to life largely through her tormented and slightly possessed acting chops. Nadja Michael didn’t always have music to sing through which to express her character. Because the score is so relatively spare, she had to rely on her physical presence on the stage to tell the story. Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard himself was strong too. While we first discovered him as Galitsky in Prince Igor last season, here he looked and sounded like a completely different (and much better) singer: darker, thicker, manlier and definitely scarier.  Bartók’s score does not necessarily give either of Judith or Bluebeard a lot to work with in terms of emotional vocal palette, however, they created the unsettling atmosphere of the piece in a way that I found riveting.

The journey through the castle begins
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met

Welcome to my torture chamber
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The production was very unusual. Mariusz Trelinski and his design team went for a horror film look that incorporates projections and electronic interludes that felt a little uneven but made for a very unique evening at the Met. A welcome change of pace. Though here too what was staged was often at odds with what is being stated or sung or declaimed in scary voices on and off stage, I found this take much more captivating than this same director’s approach in Iolanta. Bartók’s score lends itself to the creepy and campy and horror of Trelinski’s imaginative, often surreal staging. It had a very cinematographic feel, opening with a car approaching in the distance and stopping at the edge of a forest at the very back of the stage. A tall blonde woman, wearing a glamorous aquamarine silk backless evening gown, steps out of the car and follows a moody, dark-haired mystery man, wearing a tux with an undone necktie. They get through a dark, garage-like entrance, with glass walls dripping with rain (the walls are crying), and from there the downward spiral journey begins. We follow Judith in her quest through Bluebeard’s castle, from an art deco elevator suspended on the side of the stage, to a butcher-like torture chamber, a dreamy bathtub (supposedly representing the treasury, go figure), a Hitchcockian dining room with blood stained flowers, soaring views of a woodsy kingdom, a claustrophobic room tiled like a crossword puzzle (a lake of tears?!?) and the final other-worldly scene in which Judith encounters her own burial in the third person and the spirits of Bluebeard’s ex-wives.
An homage to Hitchcock's Rebecca
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The Lake of Tears
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The seventh chamber
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The singers, especially Nadja Michael, really sold this surreal and scary take. She had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. She really got bodily into the role of the possessed wife who as it turns out seems already to have died around the time that she ended up at Bluebeard’s castle, where it was already her destiny to end up a prisoner with the rest of his corpse brides and ex wives. And so her morbid curiosity to dig deeper into her new husband’s pathological secrets after penetrating his blood stained torture chamber and corridors with walls that cry suddenly makes some kind of sense once we get to the end. Though the ultimate allegorical force of the whole thing is never really fleshed out or spelled out. Trelinski gives us an out of body experience in an almost Lynchian key, rather than a meditation on the horrors of Europe in the midst of the Great War, which is the key in which I have heard it read in the past. The continent had been through so much that no one any longer wanted to see. In Bartók’s piece, a woman’s morbid curiosity pushes past the point of widespread denial, in what was definitely the scariest and most unusual opera we’ve seen so far.

 - Lui & Lei

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