The Met’s strange double-bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is seeing its first revival since its premiere exactly four years ago. Iolanta is a princess, blind from birth, whose father, King René, has arranged a lovely garden for her to live in, with servants who never let her know that there is such a thing as sight. Duke Robert of Burgundy and Count Vaudémont arrive; the former is betrothed to Iolanta but is in love with another woman and Vaudémont is searching for a “bright angel.” Vaudémont and Iolanta meet and fall in love, confusion ensues and is solved, but in the end, a Moorish doctor’s treatment and, it is implied, Vaudémont’s love for Iolanta, cures the girl, and all ends in joy and light. Bartók’s opera, on the other hand, gives us the brooding Bluebeard, rumored to have murdered his previous wives, and Judith, who marries him. Upon entering his castle, Judith is at first fascinated, and then obsessed, with seven locked doors: more and more aggressively, she demands that they be opened and what she finds is horror and darkness. Aside from the light-darkness, sightless-seeing symbolism, why present the two operas together?

Angela Denoke (Judith) and Gerald Finley (Bluebeard) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Angela Denoke (Judith) and Gerald Finley (Bluebeard)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Mariusz Treliński, artistic director of Teatr Wielki Polish National Opera, in partnership with his Dramaturg, Piotr Gruszczyński, draws them together through the concept of control: King René controls his daughter’s environment as well as her feelings – he will not allow her to come to terms with her inability to see (or her own “human-ness” and sexuality). And it is Judith who attempts to wrest control from Bluebeard (by seeing into his soul/secrets) for which he obliterates her. He blindfolds Judith as she opens the first three doors and a large eye is projected on screen as she gets closer and closer to the truth. Treliński re-uses props from Iolanta in Bluebeard. Awareness and emancipation are opposed to obliviousness and compliance. I don’t quite buy it intellectually, but Treliński, et al, have made quite an effective evening of opera.

Taking as a jumping-off point the film noir of the 1940s, both productions rely heavily on shadows and symbols; this works for Bluebeard but not Iolanta. In Boris Kudlička's angular, sharp-edged settings and projection designer Bartek Macias’ videos, instead of a paradise-like garden (as the text tells us) we get a revolving stark white room with antlers mounted on the walls, images of dead and uprooted trees with gnarled roots and gigantic deer, some alive, some dead. Her nurse and friends are rigid and cold, dressed in black nurses’ uniforms. Is the world of sight worse? Streaks and flashes of lights brighten the scene as the opera ends, but King René is left alone on stage. The interpretation seems counter-intuitive.

Sonya Yoncheva (Iolanta) and Elchin Azizov (Ibn-Hakia) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Sonya Yoncheva (Iolanta) and Elchin Azizov (Ibn-Hakia)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Sonya Yoncheva continues with another success as Iolanta. Looking lovely, curious, helpless and frightened by turns, this consummate actress came close to moving the audience to tears. The role lies comfortably, rarely flying too high, and Ms Yoncheva was in utter control throughout. As King René, bass Vitalij Kowaljow painted a portrait of a concerned bully, singing with dark, menacing tone. Matthew Polanzani partnered Ms Yoncheva’s Iolanta as Count Vaudémont, the man who wins her heart, and Alexey Markov’s warm baritone was just right for Duke Robert. Elchin Azizov as the Muslim doctor Ibn-Hakia, with the nicest tune in the opera, impressed.

The sets, videos and direction for Bluebeard did something I’ve rarely seen at the opera – they caused unease and fear. The sounds of creaking doors and moaning open the work. The castle itself lacks geography; our two characters appear and reappear in different places at the drop of a curtain; swirling images, perhaps of ganglia, one of a giant eye are projected on the dark curtain. When Judith removes her blindfold, her passivity drops and she begins to bully Bluebeard who pleads with her to stop. As the opera progresses, she becomes more wild and spasmodic – she senses the hideous outcome but refuses to stop it. Both characters are trapped in this madhouse.

Gerald Finley (Bluebeard) and Angela Denoke (Judith) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Gerald Finley (Bluebeard) and Angela Denoke (Judith)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Angela Denoke, now clearly working with reduced vocal powers, still made a fine Judith. Asked to wander the stage in, variously, tight blue evening gown, silk bathrobe and, on occasion, much less, she went from door to door with the perfect blend of curiosity, petulance and looking-for-trouble. More and more terrified as the opera progressed, watching her was a jarring experience. The remarkable Gerard Finley sounded sinisterly virile and managed to eke every bit out of Bluebeard’s complicated psyche. Greater volume from both would have been welcomed.

Conductor Henrik Nánási, in his Met debut, was effective in the beautiful, late Romantic score for Iolanta as the darkness gives way to light, but really took hold in the bleak, expressionist Bluebeard, creepy strings and woodwinds prominent, every dissonance underlined.

****1