Intriguing Juxtaposition of Tchaikovsky and Bartók Operas at The Met

United StatesUnited States Tchaikovsky, Iolanta; Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Valery Gergiev (conductor). Broadcast to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 14.2.2015. (JPr)

Piotr Beczala (Vaudémont) & Anna Netrebko (Iolanta) (c) Marty Sohl/The Met


Director: Mariusz Treliński
Set designer: Boris Kudlička
Costume designer: Marek Adamski
Lighting designer: Marc Heinz
Choreographer: Tomasz Wygoda
Video production designer: Bartek Macias
Sound designer: Mark Grey
Dramaturg: Piotr Gruszczyński

Iolanta: Anna Netrebko
Vaudémont: Piotr Beczala
Duke Robert: Aleksei Markov
King René: Ilya Bannik
Ibn-Hakia: Elchin Azizov

Bluebeard’s Castle
Judith: Nadja Michael
Bluebeard: Mikhail Petrenko


Live in HD director: Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host: Joyce DiDonato

Anna Netrebko – interviewed by the consummate Live in HD host Joyce DiDonato after her performance as Iolanta – jokingly suggested that people might have better things to do on Valentine’s Day than watch opera. Indeed at the Odeon Chelmsford another cinema experience involving closed rooms, blindfolds, and some sadomasochism was selling out several screenings – it was the new film version of 50 Shades Of Grey! Here we were watching – especially with Bluebeard’s Castle – something like the operatic version of that bestseller but one with, I suspect, a much more chilling ending.

When Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta was first heard in 1892 in Saint Petersburg his last opera shared a double bill with the composer’s last ballet, The Nutcracker. Here Polish director Mariusz Treliński (the artistic director of Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera, co-producers with the Met) and dramaturg Piotr Gruszczyński have forced together Iolanta with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. These are two works that have basically little thematically in common, yet the director himself said they allow him to show ‘one woman in two phases of her life.’ So it becomes a truly compelling (a word I use infrequently) evening with some of the best singing I have heard for many years – and Bluebeard’s Castle was undoubtedly my best ever experience of opera in the cinema.

Iolanta is a romanticised version of the real-life fifteenth-century French princess, Yolande, Duchess of Lorraine, who is portrayed as having been born blind. She is kept by her father King René (Is it through shame, guilt or her best interests?) in seclusion in a garden paradise surrounded by caring friends and attendants who never reveal that there is such a thing as sight. Her blindness is cured by Ibn-Hakia, a Moorish physician, and this healing is helped by the love of Count Vaudémont and her inner desire to see. He first arrives at the king’s estate with Robert, Duke of Burgundy, who has been betrothed since he was young to Iolanta and King René does not want Robert to find out about her condition. However, Robert tells Vaudémont that he has fallen in love with Countess Mathilda and wants to get out of the arrangement. Cue fairy-tale happy ending because having breached a garden wall Vaudémont and Iolanta have fallen in love and after some ups and downs the king agrees to their marriage. The treatment works and Iolanta rejoices in the magical new world open to her as the court celebrates in a stunningly upbeat and rousing ensemble climax. Important to this work – and worthy of much more debate – is that their Scene 3 celebration of light was clearly influenced by Tchaikovsky’s fascination with Wagner and is clearly his version of Tristan and Isolde’s Act II love duet.

Mikhail Petrenko (Bluebeard) & Nadja Michael (Judith) (c) Marty Sohl/The Met

After much impressive video imagery by Bartek Macias – including a large deer (we see eventually brought on stage slaughtered) and branches encroaching ominously – we see Boris Kudlička’s set for Iolanta that is basically a large cube open on three sides. It is a white-panelled bedroom with some deer skulls mounted on a back wall with a door. This room can turn and change slightly and seems surrounded by floating tree trunks with their roots exposed. These we will see again in Bluebeard’s Castle. Another recurring image is roses: Treliński has suggested that red roses signify carnal knowledge and white roses poetic love. In Iolanta the heroine’s confusion over their colour leads to Vaudémont realising she is blind and on their reappearance in Bluebeard’s Castle they will trigger a violent reaction from Judith. Marek Adamski’s costumes seem to suggest a European setting in the early twentieth century though Treliński is believed to have been inspired by 1940s’ classic film noir. Anyway what we are shown is far from the ‘garden paradise’ we might have been expecting.

In Treliński’s version of Bartók’s 1918 psychosexual operatic thriller Bluebeard and his new wife Judith arrive by car at what looks like little more than a derelict warehouse – or possibly an abandoned hotel, because I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining more and more as the tale unfolded. Once inside their troubles begin as Judith peels away the layers of Bluebeard’s secret world by opening all the locked doors to let in light, or rather to bring the truth behind the rumours circulating about him – and how he might have killed his previous wives – into the open. Reluctantly, Judith is given the keys she craves and the doors reveal a torture chamber, an armoury, a treasury, a secret garden, a window onto Bluebeard’s vast kingdom and the penultimate one shows a lake of tears. Her persistence – and her belief that her love can bring light to a dark truth – seals her own incarceration behind the seventh door.

Treliński’s production employs some stunning use of video, sound and stage effects to realise an intense unfolding drama. (Especially intriguing was the huge eye we saw projected and I was somewhat reminded of Magritte’s The False Mirror.) How well this all worked in the theatre I cannot know but as a cinema event it was transcendent and absolutely engrossing. Bluebeard and Judith appeared to move between rooms in an elevator. The one with the jewels had a naked Judith singing in a bathtub, leaning over the side, dangling a necklace before she notices it and an image of herself dripping with blood. As for the lake of tears? Here it becomes a white-tiled shower room with sopping wet walls. Tears (as well as roses, a blindfold and deer skulls) provides a connection between the two one-act operas we were seeing because Iolanta had lived most of her life believing that her eyes are only for crying.

At the end of Bluebeard’s Castle Judith joins Bluebeard’s three previous wives in a sort of living death behind the final door amongst the tangled tree roots and branches we saw earlier; whilst he (spoiler alert!) is shown cradling the corpse of ‘Iolanta’ in a crude grave being dug toward the front of the stage. The ‘arc’ that Treliński wanted to draw between the two stories is now complete and we have seen how Iolanta’s childish innocence and subsequent maturing has continued with Judith, who has eloped with Bluebeard. She was a woman full of sexual confidence who soon begins to regress; the passing through the various doors can be seen as a metaphor of her increasing neediness and subjection which ends in the final, total abdication of her free will.

Visually engrossing throughout, the musical side of these two operas also seemed to be of the highest possible standard. I have to make the reservation that what we hear in the cinema has had the interference of the sound engineers and may not be as heard in the opera house, but I must agree with Joyce DiDonato when she suggested Iolanta had been a reminder of a more ‘golden age of singing’. We only very rarely hear this calibre of singing in depth in this country – notably at Covent Garden.  Anna Netrebko as Iolanta appears unrivalled at the moment in difficult soprano roles that cover a range of emotions from wistful yearning to fiery determination. She was riveting as Lady Macbeth earlier this season at the Met and it was impossible to imagine she could better that tremendous performance … but somehow she has managed to. Although much can still happen in the interim of course but her planned Wagner debut as Elsa is approaching and should be something to be eagerly anticipated.

The supporting cast in Iolanta did not have a weak link with a display a typically full, secure, and resonant Slavic voices from, amongst other, baritone Elchin Azizov, as the Moorish doctor; another baritone Aleksei Markov as Duke Robert and the bass Ilya Bannik as King René. Netrebko apart, I leave the best till last and the sublimely lyrical tenor Piotr Beczala was quite wonderful as Vaudémont. The most emotionally engaging moments of the entire performance – that did have its longueurs – came during his passionate Wagner-inspired exchanges with Ms Netrebko and the uplifting final chorus.

In Bluebeard’s Castle Nadja Michael was a believably human Judith and lived the role. Her singing was viscerally fervent throughout and only occasionally a little shrill in the upper register – but that might be Bartók’s fault and not hers. Mikhail Petrenko was rather dourer as Bluebeard who is shown as someone whose evil nature constantly gets the better of him regardless of his wanting possibly to change his ways.

Valery Gergiev and the Mat Orchestra sounded on top form throughout and their performance clearly had benefitted – as Maestro Gergiev suggested – from rehearsing as much as possible with the singers. His conducting had plenty of vigour and instrumental colour and he magisterially managed the fine line between eloquent expression, stormy passion, repressed angst, violence, fear and horror.

Jim Pritchard

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