Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Iolanta
Béla Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle
The Metropolitan Opera, 2015
Valery Gergiev, Mariusz Treliński, Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala, Aleksei Markov, Ilya Bannik, Elchin Azizov, Nadja Michael, Mikhail Petrenko
The Met Live in HD - 14 February 2015
Whether by accident or design, the Met's Live in HD Valentine's Day broadcast featured two one-act operas that explored two different sides of love, one where love is bathed in light, the other shrouded in darkness. I guess if the programming was by design it might not have been a little more predictable and you might have expected Gonoud's Romeo et Juliette or - at a stretch - Tristan und Isolde. The pairing of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, never before performed at the Met, with Bartók's challenging Duke Bluebeard's Castle was much more ambitious, and with a fine musical and production team in place, it was an impressive indication of what the Met can achieve when they really make the best use of the resources and talent available to them.
There are some obvious superficial connections between the two works - both are fairy-tales and both involve a female protagonist who must overcome a domineering male figure in order to achieve fulfilment in her love life. In the interal interview during the live cinema broadcast, director Mariusz Treliński proposed a further connection that helped him link the two works, seeing Judith in Duke Bluebeard's Castle as a grown-up version of Iolanta from Tchaikovsky's opera. That doesn't really come across in any obvious attempt to suggest that they are the same person, but there's no doubt that by looking at it that way, it allows some themes in the first work to be explored in greater depth in the second.
The director uses all means at his disposal to try to tease out the underlying metaphors of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Or at least he seems to, but it becomes clear by the time we get to the Bartók work that he has left quite a bit in reserve for the deeper exploration of the more overt psychological-probing of Duke Bluebeard's Castle. For Iolanta, the world of the blind girl is beautifully realised, her bedroom a revolving open-box set within a dark wood, with occasional projections, sometimes symbolic (a faun skipping through the woods), sometimes abstract. Significantly, when Iolanta can't tell a red rose from a white rose, those projections are entirely black and white.
This is significant in a number of respects, since much of Iolanta is about perception. Iolanta's blindness is a metaphor for not seeing the outside world as it really is, being caught up in her own inner world and an idealisation of love. Her blindness, we also discover, cannot be cured unless she wants to see for herself. Of course, in Iolanta's case, that not necessarily the young girl's fault, as she has been isolated and protected from the outside world by her father King René to the extent that she isn't even aware that she is blind. The fairy-tale is not without its dark side - what proper fairy-tale isn't? - but the resolution is pretty much black and white, the light of her love for Vaudémont allowing her to see and accept the world and the people around her for who they really are.
There are no such black and white matters in Béla Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, and no pretense of the story being anything but a metaphorical exploration of female psychology and dark sexual desires. The menacing voice-over narration at the start tells us that it is the inner world that we are delving into here. And, in a way, it is true that Judith is a more grown-up version of Iolanta. The innocence is gone, and Judith goes to live with her new husband Duke Bluebeard despite his fearsome reputation for his treatment of young women, even more drawn to the darker aspects of his masculinity than the idealistic light of love. Judith is however simultaneously attracted and appalled by the dark recesses that she discovers in Duke Bluebeard's 'castle'.
Judith, more mature than Iolanta (Perrault's fairy-tale also more open about the dark impulses that underpin such stories) believes she can handle the truth now. She wants to leave no door unopened as far as her husband is concerned, but is horrified by the visions of what is revealed as she is given the key to unlock each of the rooms. Despite the warnings of never going near that darkest, locked seventh room - the secret of Bluebeard's sex life in his relationships with his previous wives - Judith can't help but curiously probe into things she would be better off not knowing about. She discovers more than she wants to know and the knowledge cannot be unlearnt. She too is trapped in Bluebeard's castle.
In line with the more psychological probing and the darker outcome of the second tale, Bartók's 20th century musical language for Bluebeard is also far away from Tchaikovsky's fairy-tale music, far more ambiguous and unsettling. As far as director Mariusz Treliński is concerned about the relative impressions that each work evokes, it's as different as black-and-white to colour. All the richness of Tchaikovsky's music is there in the setting for Iolanta but the tones and brightness are pure, but Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle requires a much more complex range of colours and effects. This is impressively achieved for a one-act opera, Boris Kudlička's set designs sliding into place, working with the lighting and projections to evoke a distinct quality for each of Bluebeard's rooms, as well as for the symbolic nature of what they represent.
This is extraordinarily ambitious, and - particularly in the handling of Duke Bluebeard's Castle - I've never seen anything quite like it at the Met. Conceptually, as a whole, it all works remarkably well, the pairing of the two works allowing one to feed off the other. Whether one gains more than another from the contrast and juxtaposition doesn't matter - it will be different for every individual viewer how they respond to each of the works - but it undoubtedly allows the viewer to see both works in a new light. That's undoubtedly a lot to do with the direction here which really probes the situations and the characters, but there is complete interaction between all aspects of the production, between the creative team and the performers which is just as vital to its success.
Aside from the challenges of the stage design, it's Valery Gergiev who has to take the orchestra from Tchaikovsky to Bartók and find commonality between the works or at least make them complementary. Like Treliński, he finds the fairy-tale aspect of the stories as a basis to work with, contrasting the shimmering otherworldliness of Tchaikovsky's score - with which the Russian conductor clearly feels an affinity - with the harder-edged factured realities of Bartók's music. Both works also benefit from contrasting but equally committed performances from Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Nadja Michael as Judith. Michael can be wildly variable depending on the role she is playing, but here in her Met debut role, she was highly impressive. With Mikhail Petrenko an outstanding Bluebeard, Iolanta was almost put into the shade by the duo in the second work. Ilya Bannik however give a strong performance as King René in Iolanta, but I found the reliable Piotyr Beczala a little bland here this time.
Links: The Met Live in HD