BWW Review: IOLANTA/BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE at The Metropolitan Opera
Fairy tales and opera are often one and the same. There's always some obstacle to overcome, a villain or two, a beautiful heroine and/or a handsome hero, sometimes an anti-hero or heroine, and maybe even some magic to help defeat any malevolent forces. Opera stories thrive on the tension of good versus evil, of light versus darkness, and although the outcomes are not always happy, there's always an interesting tale to be told.
The Met's current double bill of Iolanta by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and librettist Modest Tchaikovsky (1892) and Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartók with librettist Béla Balázs gives the audience an evening of both fantasy and intellectual stimulation. In this co-production of the Met and the Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera, the two one-act operas contain some of the same scenic elements yet the emotions are almost completely divergent. Iolanta is a blind, secluded princess whose dark world disappears when she discovers love. Bluebeard is a man who might well be a monster in human form, someone for whom love is an impossibility and whose soulless existence and vision is narrowed to the chambers of his mind, represented by his "castle." Even for an opera or fairy tale, Bluebeard is very dark, bleak material.
Soprano Sonya Yoncheva portrayed Iolanta as a pure, innocent spirit. Her beautiful face reflected her character's emotional growth and her voice gave convincing life to Iolanta. Even a momentary vocal raspiness couldn't dim Yoncheva's radiant performance. Tenor Alexey Dolgov, who was covering for an ailing Matthew Polenzani as her hopeful lover Count Vaudémont, sang with an unforced, ringing tone that filled the auditorium. He looked every inch the fairy tale nobleman. Dolgov sang the part as though born to do it. The smaller parts,( all basses or bass-baritones), of the King, the doctor Ibn-Hakia, and Duke Robert were compellingly performed by Vitalj Kowaljo, Elchin Azizov, and Alexey Markov. Tchaikovsky could not help being Tchaikovsky and composed his standard lush, exquisite symphonic music for this opera, including a breathtaking, sublime full chorus, sung by the ever-fabulous Met Opera Chorus in the final scene.
Bluebeard's Castle, loosely based on a violent fairy tale by Charles Perrault (whose more well-known stories include Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella) is the stuff of nightmares. No attempt to disguise this fact was made by this production. In fact every effort was made to ensure it. Gerald Finley's commanding presence and nerve-stretching mental torture of his wife left the audience on the edge of their seats. Although his voice lacked some of the power of his earlier career, Finley's frightening intensity carried his performance to spine-tingling heights. Angela Denoke's Judith was powerful and brave. Judith's mental unraveling and descent into madness was not only seen in Denoke's acting but heard in her thrilling voice. It was a bravura performance in every way.
Costumes for Iolanta were a mixed bag. The King wore a Nazi-like uniform yet the two young men (Vaudémont and Duke Robert) wore contemporary-looking puffer jackets and carried skis. The doctor was referred to as a Moor but was costumed as and made up to resemble Rasputin. There was no mistaking the look. This gave the opera a somewhat confused appearance.
The scenic elements of video projections (such as a 3-D doe grazing on stage right, leaves gently moving on trees, clouds moving in the background and much more) and the silvery trees not reaching the ground lent some visual beauty and were a subtle counterpoint to Iolanta's story. Other video projections and lighting in Bluebeard's Castle, as well as those trees, gave some continuity to the two stories. In using some of these same elements, the effect was created of Bluebeard's Castle being an inverse of Iolanta. It worked on a psychological level as well as being a story-telling device.
Henrik Nánási, making his house debut as conductor, held it all together for both operas. The marvelous Met Orchestra never overpowered the singers and demonstrated once again that the instrumental music was as much a character as anyone onstage. Stand-out performances were given by the wind and brass players in both operas. The harps of Emanuel Ceysson and Mariko Anraku thrilled the audience with their ethereal sounds.
Remaining performances of Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle may be seen on January 28, February 1, February 4, February 9 and -somewhat ironically- February 14. Tickets begin at $25. For more information call 212-362-6000, or visit www. metopera.org.