Piotr Beczala as Vaudémont and Anna Netrebko as the title character in Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas
It is not easy finding a partner for Bluebeard. As a Duke he has been through four wives, at least, with unpleasant results for all. Poor man, finding a good wife is not easy. As an opera, it is just as difficult finding a suitable companion for Bluebeard’s Castle. The good ones are married or in a relationship and the rest are unsuitable for many reasons including the fact that they may suffer the same fate as the women who share his castle ever so briefly.
The Met has found the perfect match for both the Duke and the opera without even going to an internet dating site. The choice fell on Tchaikovsky’s never-before-seen-at-the-Met Iolanta. The 1892 one-acter has some lush music, a few good arias and many opportunities for colourful staging.
Director Mariusz Trelinlki and Set Designer Boris Kudlička give us a captivating production in modern dress that keeps the fairy tale elements of the opera.
The fairy tale is set in 15th century southern France where we meet Iolanta (Anna Netrebko), a blind princess who is unaware of her sightlessness. She is betrothed to Robert (Alexey Markov) who is supposed to be a duke but in his bowtie, quilted jacket and skis, he looks very undukish. Robert and the knight Vaudémont (Piotr Beczala) lose their way in the forest and alight on Iolanta’s “cottage.” Robert does not know who she is (it was a childhood betrothal) and he is spoken to another in any event), Vaudémont falls in love with her and the rest is fairy tale opera.
The strength of this staging, aside from its production values, lies in the singing of Netrebko and Beczala. The soprano and the lyric tenor shine in their roles from blind princess groping around and wondering what she is missing, to the tenor falling in love with her to luscious music. There is a touching recognition scene where Iolanta realizes that she is blind thus opening the way for her to regain her sight.
Baritone Alexey Markov as Robert gives an expressive and impassioned aria in praise of Mathilde, his real love. Bass Ilya Bannik is a commanding King René, Iolanta’s father.
Iolanta lives in a cage, (well, she is a princess with servants so maybe it is a fancy cottage), in the forest which occupies a small part of the stage. Live I HD Director Gary Halvorson is content to focus on the cage and give us infrequent and unsatisfactory glimpses at what lies around it. There are some trees and the background may even change but don’t expect Halvorson to show it to you.
In spite of him, this is a very enjoyable production of this rarely produced opera.
Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko - Photo Metropolitan Opera
Béla Bartok’s Bluebeard in Trelinlki’s production opens at the edge of a dark and gloomy forest. A well-dressed man stands beside a mound of earth surrounding a hole, and a shovel. We see car lights and a beautiful blonde woman wearing a stunning gown approaches. She is Judith (Nadja Michael), the Duke’s new wife and a woman in love.
That is just the beginning of this brilliantly directed and designed production. The same team produced Iolanta with strikingly similar and successful points of similarity.
Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) is handsome and almost business-like. He gives Judith the choice of leaving him but she insists that she will stay because she loves him. His singing is controlled, resonant and seething with evil. He is a total psychopath.
Nadja Michael has a deep almost sultry voice that gives a convincing portrayal of a strong woman with driving curiosity and inexplicable love. She is a marvelous Judith.
As with Iolanta, Bluebeard’s Castle has outstanding production values. Every door that the hapless Judith opens is a drama in itself. From the torture chamber to the armoury, to the garden and finally the room where the former wives are stored, we a see a brilliantly imagined castle.
The last scene of this production is the most dramatic. Bluebeard’s former wives come to life in an eerie and frightful fashion. They are the walking dead. We are back where we started by the shovel, the mound of earth and the hole. It is in fact a grave and this time there is a half-buried woman in it. It is Judith wearing the same gown that we saw at the beginning. Bluebeard gives her a passionate kiss and promises to love her forever.
When you get such outstanding singing, brilliant orchestral playing conducted by Valery Gergiev combined with brilliant directing and design, you have opera at its best.
Let’s hope that Iolanta and Vaudémont get along just fine and she does not leave him for Duke Bluebeard.
Iolanta by Peter Tchaikovsky and Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartok were transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on February 15, 2015 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on April 11 and 13, 2015. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events