The weekend’s high culture was not limited to the local ballet. Saturday morning found Harper’s Other Dad and I at our local multiplex for the Met’s “Live in HD” simulcast of a double bill of one-act operas; Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta paired with Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. I’ve read a number of articles commenting on the unlikely pairing of these two operas. They are stylistically different to be sure. But I found them well suited to each other. The action of both pieces centers around the female lead’s (I am reluctant to call Bartok’s ‘Judith’ a heroine.) relationship to light in its literal and metaphorical sense. The director of both operas, Mariusz Trelinski, whose resume lists more credits as a filmmaker than an opera director, ties the two pieces together visually. In an interview shown in the intermission after Iolanta and before Bluebeard’s Castle, Trelinski observes that the two plots could be the stories of a woman at different points in her life. After seeing the second piece, I am not sure I see that. I see two different women whose lives are determined, albeit in very different ways, by their experience of the transition from darkness to light. One is liberated, the other destroyed.
Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, first performed in 1892 (it had its premier on the same night as Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker), is a traditional fairy tale. The title character, a blind princess has been shut away in a cottage deep in the woods by her father. He wants to protect her from knowledge of her blindness and she is unaware that others experience the world differently. She believes eyes serve no purpose aside from the shedding of tears. She lives in the care of servants and is unaware that her relationship with them is substantially different than their relationship with her. A doctor tells Iolanta’s father he may be able to restore her sight but doing so requires she be made aware of her blindness. She must have the will to change. The father refuses. As the story progresses, she meets and falls in love with a stranger, a visitor to her forest. Through him she becomes aware of her blindness but, inspired by her love, she has the will necessary change and regain her sight.
Trelinksi uses the set and pre-recorded visuals to reinforce the darkness of Iolanta’s life. Some of the trees in her forest hover with exposed roots and images of roots closing in on the cottage from all directors give the impression she is living underground, where no light can reach her. The cottage set is used to wonderful effect as well. It is a white cube open at the top and on three sides. The fourth side is a realistic wall with a door.
On one level the cube is her cottage. It separates her from the forest. People enter and leave it through the door. One another level it represents ignorance; her ignorance of her blindness, and her father’s ignorance in sheltering her. As light is shone on their ignorance, as the become enlightened, they interact with others outside the cube through the invisible walls. As they gain knowledge or reach any form of epiphany, the step out of the cube by passing through the absent walls. On a third level, the cube seems to represent Iolanta’s blindness itself. After she gains awareness and has stepped outside the cube, she reenters it to confront her blindness. She emerges again with her sight restored. In the end she regains her sight, her father grants her permission to marry the man she loves and they look forward to their ‘happily ever after’.
Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, written in 1911 and first performed in 1918, is another kind of fairy tale. Darkly brooding and fraught with psychological and psychosexual overtones, there is no small irony that the live broadcast was the same weekend that the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey opened nationally. This opera is ’50 Shades of Grey’… with an atonal score.
Bluebeard, reputed to have killed his previous wives, brings his new bride, Judith, home to his castle. Judith has heard the rumors but her love for Bluebeard is so obsessive she chooses not to believe them. The castle contains 7 doors. Judith want all the doors opened to bring light into the dark and forbidding castle. Bluebeard opposes this. As each door is opened, illuminating what lies beyond, Judith is confronted by the increasing horror of her new life and her husband’s past. Yet each time she is given the option of stopping or retreating, she chooses to open the next door. Ultimately, all the doors are opened and the light of day exposes all the castle’s secrets. There is ‘no happily ever after’ on the horizon.
Bartok’s score is spare and atonal but not minimalist. The orchestrations are simple. There are many moments of silence for both the orchestra and the singers. The pace is, be design, almost excruciatingly slow. The actor’s movements are stylized with Bluebeard, at times moving in slow motion.
Bluebeard’s Castle is not as accessible as Iolanta. I found it more intellectually interesting but far less emotionally engaging. I don’t think I would want to see it performed without a companion piece. That said, performed together, I think it is a great contrast to Iolanta.