The pairing of Tchaikovsky’s last opera Iolanta with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is seemingly an odd choice, but was given a powerful psychological production by a Polish director Mariusz Treliński in his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. The production, first presented in Poland in 2013, moves the action of both operas to an unspecified modern period, inspired by 1940s film noir, and makes a liberal and mostly effective use of video projections on a scrim in front of the stage. The simple and uncluttered staging emphasizes the theme of the production: light and darkness as representation of knowledge/ liberation/ freedom vs. ignorance/ blindness/ submission.

Anna Netrebko (Iolanta) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Anna Netrebko (Iolanta)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Iolanta, a blind princess hidden from the world in the care of a few servants by her protective father, lives in a confined world symbolized by a box-like room in center stage. Unaware of her blindness, she nevertheless senses that she is missing something, and attempts to explore the world outside the room by probing the invisible wall of the room with her hands half-raised in front, a gesture repeated by Judith, the heroine of the second opera, as the latter seeks to break the final door in her new husband Bluebeard’s castle. It is only when encouraged by an ardent suitor Vaudémont that Iolanta steps outside the room. At the end of Iolanta, as her blindness is 'cured' by the Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia, all parties joyfully sing at the front of the stage, dressed in white and bathed in bright light, although Iolanta’s father King René, identified more as an abuser than protector in this production, refuses to join in.

The box that is Iolanta’s room sometimes rotates to hide the princess while others enact their drama, propelling the action forward without the need to stop the flow of music. Its location further back on the stage, as well as the vast empty space around it, did not seem to help vocal projection, however. Anna Netrebko took a few minutes in the box/bedroom to warm up, and she may have been a bit flat at times, but she was nevertheless a commanding presence both vocally and theatrically. In keeping with her maturing voice, perhaps, she portrayed the role more as a curious and intelligent woman than an innocent and naïve ingénue, and her joyful outbursts as she learns the concept of light from Vaudémont were sung with commitment and passion. Her middle and upper middle voices were rich and warm, which added exciting colors and nuances. High notes were brighter and pierced through the chorus and orchestra in the climax. Netrebko's duet with Vaudémont, as the recurring theme of joy that serves a leitmotif of the opera is finally given its full expression, was a highlight of the opera.

Piotr Beczała (Vaudémont) and Anna Netrebko (Iolanta) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Piotr Beczała (Vaudémont) and Anna Netrebko (Iolanta)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Piotr Beczała’s lyrical and clear tenor voice is ideally suited to the ardent Count who falls in love with Iolanta at first sight, and he gave probably the strongest vocal performance of the evening. The role lies high in the tenor tessitura, and Mr Beczała negotiated the often punishing music with seeming ease and elegance. The physicality of the role in this production also fitted his spontaneous and exuberant stage presence, and he interacted naturally with both Iolanta and his friend Duke Robert, who is engaged to Iolanta but secretly wishes to marry another woman. As Robert, Aleksey Markov showed off his light-grained baritone in his brief appearance; the role seems to fit his voice and temperament well with his ample breath and stylish singing.

Ukrainian bass Ilya Bannik made an unexpected debut as Iolanta’s father King René, replacing an ailing colleague. While he sang and acted well enough, his voice was unfortunately a little small for the Met, and he lacked necessary gravitas and authority in the role. Other minor roles were all sung competently. The female chorus sang from the pit in the opening scene but was brought on stage for the final celebratory scene, dressed as Iolanta’s servants; their absence from the stage at the beginning reinforced Iolanta’s isolation and was an effective directorial touch.

The prelude to Iolanta, featuring English horn and low woodwinds, is atypical of Tchaikovsky’s music in its brooding and tonal ambiguity. That element of near atonality is most prominent in Bluebeard’s Castle. With only two singers who are continuously on stage, the orchestra is very much the third voice of the opera, and the Met Orchestra under Valery Gergiev played magnificently. The crucial tonal shift from F sharp to C major as Judith opens the fifth door of Bluebeard’s vast domain, with the brilliant brass and expansive strings, was breathtakingly dramatic. The use of speakers to enhance the sound of unlocking and opening of the doors of the castle was effective but not excessive, as was some amplification of the bass voice when the singer was hidden. The video projections of a corridor-like structure, as well as of forests, were more effective here in evoking a dark and sinister mood permeating the opera than was the case in Iolanta, where galloping deer at the beginning of the opera symbolized Iolanta’s restlessness and vulnerability.

Mikhail Petrenko (Bluebeard) and Nadja Michael (Judith) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Mikhail Petrenko (Bluebeard) and Nadja Michael (Judith)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Vocally the two soloists in Bluebeard’s Castle were perhaps not blessed with the most beautiful voices but their performance was gripping in their intensity, and the lack of elegance actually suited the emotional rawness of the score. Nadja Michael’s deep chest voice expressed Judith’s obsessive desire, and she cut a striking figure on stage with her very physical acting. Mikhail Petrenko sang with appropriate menace, although one wished for more color in his delivery, for instance when the word “tears” are repeated nine times in quick succession in the sixth door scene.

In keeping with his vision that Iolanta and Judith represent the same woman, suffering from oppression, the director chose to have Judith blindfolded as she entered the castle, and also projected a large eye on screen as Judith made discoveries about the castle and her husband.  While the latter seemed somewhat excessive, the production in general was quite successful in capturing the musical drama. The reminders from the first opera – white flowers on the dining table, stuffed heads of deer on the wall, uprooted trees – were deftly introduced in the second opera, again reinforcing the director’s point of view. It was most welcome that the often-omitted introduction, spoken in Hungarian, was used here, followed closely by an overlapping prelude, setting an appropriately disorienting stage to the deeply psychological drama of shattering musical power.

****1