Bartók and Tchaikovsky–Strange Bedfellows at the Met

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; February 3, 2015–What on earth, one might ask, do Tchaikovsky’s operatic swan song,  Iolanta, a sweet fairy tale with a joyous ending, and Bartók’s weird, cruel, and eerie Bluebeard’s Castle have in common? Iolanta is a princess, blind from birth, whose father, King René, has arranged a lovely garden for her to live in, with servants who never let her know that there is such a thing as sight. A Moorish doctor, Ibn-Hakia, is called to the palace to find a cure, but he tells the king that only if Iolanta is made aware of her condition and passionately wants to see, will she gain sight. The King rejects the idea.

Duke Robert of Burgundy and Count Vaudemont arrive; the former is betrothed to Iolanta but is in love with another woman and Vaudemont is searching for a “bright angel”. Vaudemont and Iolanta meet and fall in love, confusion ensues and is solved, but in the end, Ibn-Hakia’s treatment and, it is implied, Vaudemont’s love for Iolanta, cures the girl, and all ends in joy and light.

Bartók’s opera, on the other hand, gives us the brooding character of Bluebeard, rumored to have murdered his previous wives, and Judith, who leaves behind her family and friends to marry him. Upon entering his castle, Judith at first is fascinated and then obsessed with seven locked doors. More and more aggressively she demands that they be opened, and what she finds is a journey into horror and darkness. Aside from the light/darkness symbolism, why present the two operas together?

The artistic director of Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera, Mariusz Trelinski, in partnership with his dramaturge, Piotr Gruszczynski, has stated that both operas are about control: the King in Iolanta controls his daughter’s environment as well as her feelings–he will not allow her to come to terms with her own inability to see (or her own “human-ness” and sexuality). And in Bluebeard it is Judith who attempts to wrest control from Bluebeard (by seeing into his soul/secrets) for which he obliterates her. Trelinski feels that Iolanta and Judith are both suffering from oppression/blindness–he has Judith blindfolded as she opens the first three doors and a large eye is projected on screen as she gets closer and closer to the truth. And he re-uses props from Iolanta in Bluebeard. Awareness and emancipation are opposed to obliviousness and compliance. I don’t quite buy it intellectually, but Trelinski, et al, have made quite an effective evening of opera.

Taking as a jumping-off point the film noir of the 1940s, both productions rely heavily on shadows and symbols; this works for Bluebeard but not Iolanta. In Boris Kudlicka’s angular, sharp-edged settings and projection designer Bartek Macias’ videos, Iolanta’s surroundings are supposedly a paradise-like garden (as the text tells us); we get, on the other hand, a revolving stark white room with deer heads mounted on the walls, images of dead trees with gnarled roots and gigantic deer, some alive, some dead. Her nurse and friends are rigid and cold, dressed in black nurses’ uniforms. Is Iolanta lucky to be blind? Is her world not worth seeing? And if so, why is King René (more Commandant than King in the modern-dress setting) seen as the villain, left alone on the stage at the opera’s end?

Puzzling food for thought, indeed, but musically delicious. Anna Netrebko, at her most lush both physically and vocally, played Iolanta not as a young girl, but, in keeping with the theme, a young woman who has blossomed but does not understand what it is that’s happening to her. The voice served the text at every turn, her confusion and sadness as powerful as her eruptions of happiness. “Does God give us eyes only so we can cry?” she asks at one point, and Netrebko delivered the line unforgettably.

Vaudemont, who offers her light/sensuality/the prospect of liberation, was sung by Piotr Beczala, possibly in his finest of many fine portrayals at the Met. By turns lyrical and heroic, the handsome tone, easy, bright top notes, and engaging stage manner won him a grand ovation. Baritone Aleksei Markov, who is also singing in Ballo and Bohème this season at the Met, was splendid as Duke Robert, his tone rich and Verdian. Ibn-Hakia, who has possibly the loveliest melody in the opera, was sung handsomely by Azerbaijani baritone Elchin Azizov. Bass Ilya Bannik’s René did not impress.

In Bluebeard, Nadja Michael, who, it was universally thought, made a disastrous debut as Lady Macbeth in 2012, redeemed herself as Judith, using a dark tone for most of the opera but letting out a fine high C at the opening of the fifth door. Asked to wander the stage wearing, variously, a tight blue evening gown, a silk bathrobe, and, on occasion, much less, she went from door to door with the perfect blend of curiosity and looking-for-trouble. Mikhail Petrenko’s Bluebeard certainly did not lack elegant menace, but either the set did not flatter his voice or he was simply overparted: a grander sound is required.

The Met Orchestra played the late-Romantic and Expressionistic scores with great beauty and detail. Valery Gergiev led a superbly lyrical Iolanta, but Bluebeard seemed to lag (it was, in fact a very slow performance–almost 70 minutes) and the grand orchestral explosions were underplayed.