Met Opera Double Bill: ‘Iolanta’ and ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ — A Toast to the Bizarre and the Unexpected

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Tchaikovsky's Iolanta & Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle at the Met (Marty Sohl/Met Opera)
Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta & Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Met (Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

The live Met Opera season is over for now, but the work of reviewing has only begun!

It’s fun to look back on the past season and reminisce about the hits and misses, as well as the ones that got away. That’s where we come in, i.e., to put order to the chaos and make sense of what at times can seem like utter senselessness.

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2014-2015 radio broadcast season got underway, on December 6, 2014, with a whimper with a mediocre Barber of Seville. It ended in April/May 2015 with two wham-bam performances of Verdi works, along with a hum-drum presentation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. We’ll be getting to Verdi at a later time, but first let me backtrack a bit to summarize some earlier goings-on.

James Levine returned to the Met in splendid form for a rousing Die Meistersinger, featuring a capable cast. Mozart was well represented, too, with The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute on separate occasions, but La Traviata let this listener down with an uninspired presentation. I missed the New Year broadcast of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, but caught the Live in HD transmission of same on a preceding date. While the singing was satisfactory, the staging felt imposed upon, as if British director Richard Jones was reaching for an interpretation that lay beyond his grasp.

January was indeed a cruel month for the Metropolitan, what with Aida going by the boards, The Merry Widow wallowing in a perilously unfunny English translation, and a La Bohème that barely passed notice, despite a finely-etched personification of the dying Mimì by soprano Kristine Opolais. Verdi’s Macbeth came up a winner (and was previously reviewed on this blog), but the new double bill of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s romantic Iolanta paired with the sinisterly shaded Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, broadcast on February 14, merits a few lines of commentary.

I was familiar with Iolanta only through King René’s lovely arioso, “O God, I have sinned,” which basses from Sibiriakov to Ghiaurov have recorded throughout the years. This short but beautiful air, whose ascending melody starts low and ends high (unusual for Tchaikovsky, who had the opposite tendency) and boasts an exceptionally wide-range for the singer, is about the extent of my knowledge of the Russian composer’s final stage work.

Vaudemont (Piotr Beczala) & Iolanta (Anna Netrebko)
Vaudemont (Piotr Beczala) & Iolanta (Anna Netrebko)

The Met’s casting of Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the blind Princess Iolanta, with Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as her lover Vaudémont, sent sparks flying out into the auditorium. Their soaring love duet and peerless vocalism were the central highpoint of the afternoon, a goose-bump inducing moment to rival the very best. Though Alexei Tanovitski’s King René failed to provide the “rolling thunder” required of his role, baritone Alexey Markov’s brief assignment as Robert and mezzo Mzia Nioradze’s Marta lent a legitimate air of Slavic authenticity.

Coupled with Bluebeard’s Castle, Iolanta came off best for what it was: that is, 90-minutes of high-powered melody and richly-realized characterizations. In sharp contrast, the brooding quality of Bartók’s masterpiece, with its symbolic episodes concerning the enigmatic Duke Bluebeard and his overly curious bride, Judith, invites as one critic put it “thoughtful, serious engagement,” not rafter-raising adulation.

Judith’s unlocking of the seven doors to the Duke’s crumbling estate is meant to be taken figuratively. As they are opened, each door reveals, or should reveal, some aspect of the title character’s nature and being (“frequently disturbing” is the general consensus), in addition to his homicidal past. What action there is binds itself exclusively to the music; what psychological insight it has into the soul of its two protagonists depends upon the staging. The shadow-laced score for Claude Debussy’s dreamlike Pelléas et Mélisande, for example, readily comes to mind when discussing the Bartók work.

The Met’s earlier 1989 attempt at reviving Bluebeard’s Castle (paired alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung) floundered, mostly due to a too literal approach to scenic design and a penchant for box-office drawing power. With that said, bass-baritone Samuel Ramey’s richly vocalized Duke and soprano Jessye Norman’s mournful, volcanic Judith were beyond rebuke, but neither artist prevailed over the curiously contrived staging. The big “to-do” of that production was Ramey taking off his wig to reveal a completely bald pate — a senseless coup de théâtre that missed the point of the story entirely.

Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) with his bride, Judith (Nadja Michael)
Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) with his bride, Judith (Nadja Michael)

In this latest incarnation, Polish director Mariusz Treliński opted for a “film noir” approach to both works. This probably served Bluebeard better than Iolanta, but the premise was well thought out nonetheless. Still, the unbeatable casting coup for Tchaikovsky did not carry over into Bartók’s moody opus. As Bluebeard, St. Petersburg-born basso Mikhail Petrenko’s mewling vocal production and theatrical skills can be quite effective in any number of parts, including the boisterous Prince Galitsky in last season’s new production of Borodin’s Prince Igor, or the voluble monk Pimen in Boris Godunov. Here, he seemed over-parted and under-powered, a victim of busy stage effects.

One could say the same for German soprano Nadja Michael as Judith. A serious and compelling artist on stage, whose unique physicality has made her an equally successful Salome and Lady Macbeth, Nadja sounded somewhat reined in by her surroundings (which included a nude bathtub sequence). My gut feeling is that both singers were done-in by the elaborate production as a whole.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the director’s use of computer graphics, visual projections and digital wizardry helped propel Bluebeard’s Castle into a theatrical nether-region beyond anything the Met has seen to this point. On the radio, however, these facets tend to go by the wayside: vocal performance is what counts. Whereas the team of Netrebko and Beczala overcame their circumstances to deliver bravura performances, that of Petrenko and Michael couldn’t begin to match their intensity. Blame the composer for that!

Iolanta (Anna Netrebko) in her room
Princess Iolanta (Anna Netrebko) in her room

In conjunction with the above observations and in fairness to the artists involved, pitting the romantic attributes of the Russian Tchaikovsky against the Hungarian Bartók’s differing yet no less remarkable musical capabilities probably let the air out of the audience’s bag long after the golden curtain had come down on the stirring Iolanta. In an interview for Opera News magazine, Treliński described Bluebeard’s Castle as “a work with an incredible undertone of dread.” If hope, as epitomized by Iolanta, comes before dread, which Bluebeard’s Castle clearly hints at … well, then, in the end, there is no hope; the quixotic notions of a late nineteenth-century world (in Iolanta) evaporate before the war-shattered world of the twentieth (as depicted in Bluebeard’s Castle).

Valery Gergiev, who is near the top of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “friends-of-Vlad” list, conducted both works in typically breathless fashion. There is no one in the classical realm, or in the opera house for that matter, that can spin out those intensely passionate, long-limned Tchaikovsky-esque phrases the way Gergiev can. His Bartók was taken at a slower but no less absorbing pace, which stood as  proof of his versatility. With an orchestra of the caliber of the Metropolitan Opera’s group of musicians, native Muscovite Gergiev had a first-class ensemble at his beck and call to do justice to these two rarely performed but fervently conveyed works.

On a thoughtful note, I felt that maestro Gergiev prefers to wallow in Bluebeard’s darkly foreboding fortress rather than let the sunlight in on the happy fairy-tale ending to Iolanta. It’s merely an observation on my part from what I was able to gather of the broadcast. From this listener’s vantage point, perhaps a reversal of the order in which both works are presented may provide a respite to the letdown one experiences with Bartók after the exhilarating climax to the Tchaikovsky piece.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

 

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