The Met sent an unusual duo around the world this afternoon – Tchaikovsky’s last opera Iolanta and Bartok’s only opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; the Met omitted Duke from the title. This run of the Tchaikovsky was the first time the opera was done by the Met. The reason was Anna Netrebko in the title role, though the best singing came from tenor Piotr Beczala and baritone Aleksei Markov.
Iolanta is a gentle work that has moments of lyric beauty (how could anything by Tchaikovsky not?), but which suffers from the great composer’s problem with opera – an attenuated sense of the dramatic. This is odd considering how much great dramatic orchestral music he wrote. But it explains why only Eugene Onegin of the composer’s 10 operas is firmly ensconced in the standard repertory outside of Russia.
Iolanta is a fairy tale. Its protagonist has been blind since birth, but doesn’t know it as her father, the King of Provence, has brought her up in a setting in which light and sight are never mentioned. She’s been engaged since birth to Duke Robert, but they’ve never met. She lives in a house in the forest. Vaudémont , the tenor and Robert’s best friend, stumbles across her when he gets lost in the forest. They fall in love. Iolanta’s blindness is cured by a Moorish physician, Ibn-Hakia, and all ends happily. An example of Tchaikovsky’s poor sense of theater is that the most dramatic event in the opera takes place behind a closed door. Iolanta’s cure of her blindness we are told after the fact was a horrific event which she endured with extraordinary stoicism.
Anna Netrebko was in slightly less than her best form this afternoon. Her usually voluptuous high notes were a little thin. Nothing major, just a great artist a little off her game. She acted the part of the innocent princess with conviction, but there isn’t a whole lot to the part other than playing blind.
Piotr Beczala, who has sounded strained in his recent Met outings, was in extraordinary form today. His lyric tenor was beautifully produced and his high notes were perfectly emitted. Whatever vocal difficulty he may have recently experienced was entirely gone. He sounded as good or better than any lyric tenor now active.
The Russian baritone Aleksei Markov sang Duke Robert. The role is short, but contains a nice solo in which Markov showed a big Verdi style baritone. He has already sung the elder Germont and the Count di Luna at the Met. The company should bring him back for more Verdi.
Ukrainian bass Ilya Bannik was Iolanta’s father King René. He’s a very slender man with a sizable voice. He was very convincing as the overprotective parent.
Polish director Mariusz Trelinski moved the time of the story to the 1920s. This was, in my opinion, a bad idea as the tale belongs in a medieval setting. Having the king’s attendant Alméric arrive in an aviator’s hat and goggles was just goofy. Otherwise the production was very effective. Iolanta lived in a one room house, a box, set in the middle of the stage. The generous use of projections enhanced the fairy tale atmosphere of the story.
Valery Gergiev conducted with restraint and elegance befitting Tchaikovsky’s mostly sweet-tempered score.
Bartok’s opera is also a fairy tale, but a beast of another genus. Written in 1911, but not performed until 1918, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a product of expressionism and greatly influenced by Richard Strauss’s explosive orchestra of Salome and Elektra. The period of its composition was also that of the high water mark of psychoanalysis. Regardless of what influenced him the brilliant orchestra of Bluebeard is pure Bartok, albeit early Bartok.
The symbolism is layered so thick that deep contemplation of it could interfere with listening to Bartok’s miraculous score. The story is so black and the music still so “modern,” even though it’s more than century old, that audiences still don’t know how to react to the work. I think it best to take the story as it appears on the surface and not look for any deeper meanings. Bluebeard’s a psycho and Judith is a nagging wife who gets put into long term storage when she makes one too many demands – serves her right.
The Met has done Bluebeard before. Interestingly, the Met has lost count of how many times they’ve done the work. Previously, the opera was performed 22 times in Chester Kallman’s English translation. This time it’s done in the original Hungarian although as far as I could tell it could have been Sanskrit. The Met lists the first performance of this production as the 25th in the company’s history. Numbers 23 and 24 have gone the way of the dodo.
Director Trelinski is trying to make a statement with back to back fairy tales that are solar systems apart in outlook. He carries some of the business from Iolanta into Bluebeard, like the roses, the stuffed deer heads on the wall, and the single glove. But I was determined not go beyond the top of each story and resisted imputing meaning to these touches.
The performance of Bluebeard was quite good. The Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko has a lovely lyric voice that is really not dark and menacing enough for the psychopathic Duke. His acting was superb and he looked the part even though the 20th century setting had him a tuxedo throughout the work.
German soprano Nadja Michael was compelling as the overly inquisitive Judith. Ms Michael is as buff as an Olympic swimmer and sang and acted her part with complete conviction. Her vocal technique is so secure that this observer lost himself in the brilliance of her portrayal. My only complaint was the corpse in the partially dug grave in the opera’s last scene. In this version of the Bluebeard story, Bluebeard doesn’t kill his wives – he keeps them alive behind the 7th and final door. Bluebeard’s three previous wives were there. What the corpse was doing there was mysterious even in a symbolist story.
The sets again made fine use of projections combined with corporeal objects. If you wanted to make a psycho-sexual stew of the opera all the ingredients were available. Maestro Gergiev let all the Met’s orchestral cannons loose. The great orchestra met every challenge that Bartok’s instrumental extravaganza presented.
Gary Halvorson’s video direction was once again right on the mark. An interesting afternoon that most opera goers will probably not wish to repeat. Iolanta and Bluebeard will not overtake Cav and Pag which are up a little later in this season, but they’re worth and afternoon or evening in the theater.
Peter Tchaikovsky-Modest Tchaikovsky/Henrik Hertz
King René………………Ilya Bannik
Laura………………….Cassandra Zoé Velasco
Béla Bartók-Béla Balázs/Charles Perrault
Set Designer……………Boris Kudlicka
Costume Designer………..Marek Adamski
Lighting Designer……….Marc Heinz
Video Production Designer..Bartek Macias
Sound Designer………….Mark Grey
TV Director…………….Gary Halvorson