For The Cleveland Orchestra’s annual operatic presentation, the orchestra teamed up with Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet for two darkly dramatic stage works by Béla Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin and Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Both have previously been presented in concert, but this was their first staged version at Severance Hall. The enterprise was a musical and theatrical success. Franz Welser-Möst conducted. Yuri Possokhov was director and choreographer, with sets and lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols and costumes by Mark Zappone.

<i>Bluebeard's Castle</i> in Severence Hall © The Cleveland Orchestra | Roger Mastroianni
Bluebeard's Castle in Severence Hall
© The Cleveland Orchestra | Roger Mastroianni

Designer Alexander V. Nichols and director Yuri Possokhov made imaginative use of the Severance Hall stage, which has no fly space and limited facilities for scenery and lighting. The orchestra was placed far upstage, with the action taking place downstage, including the orchestra pit, which was raised to stage height. There was a narrow walkway constructed at the rear of the stage at the level of the hall’s pipe organ facade, from which performers emerged during both works.

The only scenery for Miraculous Mandarin was a chrome and lucite box that represented the balcony from which the Young Woman (Victoria Jaiani) lures men to her room so that the three thugs (Raúl Casasola, Paulo Rodrigues and Joan Sebastián Zamora) can rob them. The Old Man (Miguel Angel Blanco) was dressed in black and gold wire rim glasses to mark his age. When the thugs discover that he has no money, they throw him out. The second victim, Shy Man (Temur Suluashvili), also has no money, but the young woman is attracted to him and dances for him with growing sensuality. The thugs intervene and dispatch him. The third victim is the Mandarin (Yoshihisa Arai), clad in a brilliant blue mandarin-collar suit. There is something mysterious about him which draws the woman to him. As the couple dances with increasing fervor, the thugs attack the Mandarin and kill him. But he doesn’t die, and begins his dance anew with the woman. The thugs try to kill him again by hanging; he is again resurrected. Finally, the woman succumbs to the Mandarin’s advances, and he dies in her arms.

Victoria Jaiani (Young Woman) in <i>The Miraculous Mandarin</i> © The Cleveland Orchestra | Roger Mastroianni
Victoria Jaiani (Young Woman) in The Miraculous Mandarin
© The Cleveland Orchestra | Roger Mastroianni

Despite the erotic story, Possokhov's choreography was angular and aggressive, matching Bartók’s shrieking and dissonant music, clearly influenced by Bartók’s work with Eastern European folk music. The score emphasized brass, winds and percussion. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus sang a few wordless phrases from behind action in the organ chamber. Welser-Möst was unerring in his pacing of the musical action.

Bluebeard’s Castle was a triumph for the artists and production team. Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko was commanding, yet sometimes gentle, with an air of resignation in his portrayal of Duke Bluebeard, who brings his new wife Judith (soprano Katarina Dalayman) to his dark, gloomy castle, with its seven locked doors. Over the course of the opera’s 50 minutes Judith wheedles the keys from Bluebeard and unlocks the doors in an attempt to bring light and happiness to the castle. But the answers hidden behind the doors, no matter how beautiful, all have grim subtext: his treasures behind the third door are stained with blood; the beautiful gardens of the fourth door have been watered with blood and wither under Judith’s view. Blood and darkness are everywhere. In this production the doors are represented by filmy fabric suspended drapes upon which images of the rooms’ contents are projected. One by one, the drapes are pulled to the floor as the action proceeds.

At the fifth door, happiness momentarily seems possible, with Judith’s view of Bluebeard’s vast domain. Judith’s high C gasp when the door is opened must be one of the most glorious C major chords in all of music, with full orchestra and full organ. Dalayman’s thrilling soprano easily rode over the huge ensemble. But happiness dissolves when blood-red clouds descend.

Katarina Dalayman (Judith) and Mikhail Petrenko (Bluebeard) © The Cleveland Orchestra | Roger Mastroianni
Katarina Dalayman (Judith) and Mikhail Petrenko (Bluebeard)
© The Cleveland Orchestra | Roger Mastroianni

The seventh, final door reveals Bluebeard’s former wives in a blinding flash of light. They have been locked away, here in the organ pipe chamber, garishly lit in sinister green. In this performance, the wives, portrayed by Joffrey Ballet dancers Amanda Assucena, April Daly and Victoria Jaiani, descend to the stage and engage in a sensuous dance enveloping Judith, who has now taken her place with them, wearing the sparkling cloak worn by the others. Bluebeard is alone as the music ends.

Dalayman caught every nuance of Judith’s persuasive power over Bluebeard. Her vocal range was sometimes low – a few times she was covered by the orchestration – but she was at ease in the higher passages. Petrenko was fearless, but conveyed Bluebeard’s ultimate sadness. Welser-Möst and orchestra caught the musical essence of Bartók’s brilliant orchestrations.

Anticipation should be high for The Cleveland Orchestra’s announced 2017 operatic project, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.