It was a bold idea to stage Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle in a single evening. The length of the performance is not daunting—little more than three hours—but the juxtaposition of the two works leads to a bracing sort of dissonance. However closely they might be brought together through directorial conception, a fine frisson of incompatibility kept them vibrating in separate spheres. By the time Iolanta had reached its final resounding chorus in praise of God’s blessings (even if the chorus’s black uniforms and white aprons did make them look a bit like the waitstaff of a high-end mountain resort), it was almost inconceivable that in a few minutes we would be injected into Bluebeard’s dark and splintered labyrinth.
Having communed, in Iolanta, with the vulnerability of a blind princess sequestered from the world—taking part in her passage through stages of confusion and sorrow toward a jubilant if painful passage into light—it is jarring to be dropped down into the vulnerability of Bluebeard’s new lover Judith as she arrives at the threshold of his windowless castle with its dripping walls. The danger overcome in the first work returns, this time without hope of getting past it. If Tchaikovsky’s music moves upward and outward, out of pity toward reconciliation, Bartók’s charts an uninterrupted spiraling course, inward and downward toward fearful acknowledgment. To go from one to the other requires a rapid readjustment of the nervous system.
Different as they are, the two operas can certainly be linked in many ways. To experience them side by side becomes an exercise in discerning just how many such connections there might be. As the Met’s program notes point out, they were written only twenty years apart. Both are fairy tales self-consciously transmuted into symbolist allegories; both center on a woman kept in ignorance by a powerful man and striving to learn the truth.
The blind Iolanta (Anna Netrebko) is kept away from the world by her father King René (Ilya Bannik), waited on by servants forbidden to let her know not only that she is blind but even that such things as blindness and vision exist, until a wandering huntsman breaks the spell of unknowing and leads her toward the recovery of sight. Bartók’s Judith (Nadja Michael), having abandoned family and friends to go away with Duke Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) despite the evil rumors surrounding him, insists on seeing all the seven locked rooms of his castle, wearing down his resistance to handing her the keys, until on opening the last door she finds herself condemned to eternal night along with his other wives, preserved in the secret chamber like the living dead.
Mariusz Treliński, the Polish director whose first Met production this is, has found intricate devices for framing the operas as parallel worlds that might well be the same world seen under different aspects. He has aimed to flavor the fairy-tale timelessness of the librettos (Iolanta is ostensibly set in a fanciful version of fifteenth-century France, Bluebeard’s Castle in what, according to its opening recitation, could be the mind’s interior) with visual motifs from 1940s Hollywood. His King René wears jackboots that would befit a Nazi officer in one of Fritz Lang’s wartime films; Judith and Bluebeard are dressed along the elegant lines of Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (cited by the director as a point of reference).
Treliński overlays certain visual motifs across both operas—white flowers, blue dresses, necklaces, uprooted trees that rise and descend—not to mention the baronial wall display of antlered stag heads that recurs in both, related presumably to the most disconcerting touch of all: the giant deer that emerges at the side of the stage at the beginning of Iolanta. This hologram Bambi collapses into nothingness, to be followed by a succession of video-projected deer racing across the field of vision through the opening bars of the music, a drifting prelude that seems designed to express that cloud of unshaped yearnings into which the princess is just waking. Hovering and unassertive, it reaches for something like the sound of her blindness.
Iolanta was Tchaikovsky’s last opera—composed in 1891–1892 in tandem with The Nutcracker—and has never been done at the Met before. It is a curious work whose lyrical core is surrounded by a good deal of peripheral exposition and explanation; its shape might be said to mirror the surging of Iolanta’s discontent against the confining limits of her world. Her arias represent a series of increasingly forceful efforts to break through a wall that she does not even know exists, and the culminating scene is a long central duet in which the stranger Vaudémont (Piotr Beczala), not yet realizing her blindness, is bewildered as she repeatedly hands him a white rose instead of the red one he asked for.
In the Met production Iolanta in her crisis of incomprehension knocks over a table and the scene is plunged into darkness, as her blindness is in effect for a moment made visible—the crisis being followed by an ecstatic love scene in which, musically at least, all barriers dissolve as the lovers climb their way by sheer vocalism to “the light of the sun…God’s glory made manifest.”
The music triumphs over a libretto excessively literal-minded for so ethereal a theme, full of pedantic explanations and cumbersome asides and with much superfluous incident for so short a work. The broad allegorical opposition of blindness and vision at its core gets tangled in provisos and argumentation. Iolanta asserts that she doesn’t really need vision because the rest of God’s creation is quite sufficient (although she would just as soon have her sight restored so she can share the visual world with her lover); Vaudémont fervently vows that he will love her whether she can see or not. To clutter things further, the wrathful king who has threatened to kill Vaudémont if his daughter’s sight cannot be restored lets on that he didn’t really mean it and was only trying to spur her motivation to see. The details of the drama—adapted by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest from King René’s Daughter by the Danish playwright Henrik Hertz—come to seem like nothing more than an obstructive thicket that the blind Iolanta must keep pushing against to find a way out of her isolation, as if she were the single live person trapped in a puppet play.
There is marvelous music throughout: the king anguishing over her blindness while remaining blind himself to the consequences of keeping her a prisoner; the metaphysical discourse on flesh and spirit by the Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Azizov), who has the skill to restore her vision only on the condition that she acknowledge her blindness; the ringing back-to-back arias of Vaudémont and his jovial companion Robert (Aleksei Markov), both of which evoked roars of approval on opening night. (That response seemed to break the somewhat unfocused aura that had until that point hovered around the performance both of the singers and the orchestra under Valery Gergiev’s direction.)
All that, however, would not add up to any kind of drama without the figure of Iolanta, at the outset as confined and helpless a heroine as could be imagined, not even able to conceive of what is troubling her, surrounded by a solicitous household staff whom she regards as loving friends even though (in this production) some of them look at her with the amused condescension of hired help dealing with a basket case. The Gothic pavilion that the libretto identifies as her place of confinement is here turned into a rudimentary sort of hunting lodge (hence those antlers on the wall), and Iolanta in her white nightdress seems less the pampered daughter of an indulgent king and more an embarrassing offspring subjected to some antiquated mode of psychiatric treatment.
The real action of the opera is her gradual recognition of the inchoate sadness that finally forces her to rebel against the soothing nurses assuring her that everything is all right. Anna Netrebko, in an opera that she has long championed, was not in as good voice as on her recently released recording of the opera. But if her tone seemed forced at times, she did fully convey the inarticulate desperation in everything Iolanta sings. There was nothing allegorical about the way she stumbled disoriented around the room or came up against the wall as if it marked the edge of her own grasp of things. Her isolation ward is set on a revolving stage and as the opera progresses is stripped of its furnishings, while lighting effects make it seem progressively smaller. Surrounding that hermetic chamber are forest and mountains restlessly transformed by cycles of light and darkness, filled out with layers of rock and vegetation by complicated video projections, a natural world from which the room in the center remains cut off.
When Iolanta finally is able to see, thanks to a swift operation performed out of audience view—the staging could not conceal just how hurriedly the opera manages this wrap-up—she emerges into the glare momentarily dazed, finding the light painful, unable to recognize anyone or anything, still unattached to the world. It feels like more of a real ending than the joyful chorale that follows, in which Iolanta’s particular case is submerged in a general hymn of praise. The individual drama is left where it was, slightly off balance, with Iolanta trying to get a sense of where the room exists in relation to the rest of the world, and who the people are who cluster around her as if she were a potentially dangerous creature suddenly set loose. As Iolanta goes off with her lover, Treliński chooses to linger on the figure of her father in his military garb, her possessively loving jailer now left to his solitude.
At the first performance a protester made his way to the stage during the curtain call and displayed (as near as could be determined at a distance) a mocking poster of Putin as Hitler, flanked by images of Gergiev and Netrebko, before apparently being taken into custody in the wings. The interruption—with its reminder of Ukraine and the opposition that continues to greet Gergiev and Netrebko for their strong support of Putin—provided a quick blast of real-life clamor between these two operatic dream worlds. When the performance resumed with Bluebeard’s Castle, Gergiev and the orchestra seemed palpably energized. Bartók’s work is as much symphonic poem as opera and from its opening chords sets in motion an inexorable mechanism allowing for no pause or relaxation of attention until it is played out.
Staging, even on this production’s level of visual elaboration, is almost beside the point. The interpenetration of the words of the Hungarian librettist Béla Balázs and Bartók’s music, as realized by two singers on an empty stage, would already contain mise-en-scène enough. I don’t know if there is another opera so rigorously compressed and pared down. Its hour’s duration is a continuous unfolding that seems to have begun even before we have started listening, and that in its ending leaves the impression of a permanent silence—the “midnight” that is the last word sung—in which all that treasury of sound has been sealed up and buried.
The spine of it is of stark simplicity. There is a man, Bluebeard, a woman, Judith, and a castle with seven doors to be opened one by one. Such simplicity allows for a constantly shifting and exfoliating sonic density without the architecture ever being lost sight of. The music keeps finding new layers of lyric beauty—a beauty entirely devoid of anything soothing or heartening or uplifting, yet irresistible by texture alone, the ear being led deeper into previously unheard sonorities as variously colored as the rooms that Judith enters—even as the drama burrows deeper into inescapable dread and claustrophobia.
Balázs doubtless had many models in mind—Poe’s necrophiliac tales, the dream plays of Strindberg and Maeterlinck, the perverse pseudobiblical poeticism of Wilde’s Salome—but he distilled them into a libretto that has the almost childlike feel of a bloody folk ballad about a demon lover. Its meters echo a nursery rhyme along the lines of “Mary, Mary, quite contrary,” and its repetitive patterns of question and answer are as hypnotic as some ancient half-understood liturgy. A self-consciously sophisticated product of the age of Freud and Schnitzler and Klimt, it yet retains its link with the tale’s ancient origins. If Iolanta without its music feels like a concocted fairy tale, the libretto of Bluebeard’s Castle provides an opening for what Bartók’s music would more thoroughly set loose: the troubling force of deep folklore.
Balázs carefully preserved the open-endedness of the story. The spoken recitation that precedes the opera asks but does not answer the question of where it takes place, outside us or inside us. We are left with the clear possibility that as a genuine mind-opera, it cannot be said to take place anywhere—that Bluebeard’s castle is the opera itself, the orchestral sounds not merely a description of the castle’s interior but its very walls and passageways, built out of vibrations. Bluebeard and Judith would then both alike be trapped within it, coiled around each other in a dance of death driven by desire and curiosity.
In the course of an hour the awareness sinks in that this is an opera without real action, that in some sense no one does anything other than submit to the inevitable even when seeming most violently engaged. The man and woman drown in themselves and in each other. The orchestra is finally the decisive character, and at the Met Gergiev provides an opportunity to experience the full force of Bartók’s overwhelming score.
The spareness of the tale’s shape invites multiple readings. Treliński’s production was an exercise in multiplicity, even at the risk of overcomplication. The Rebecca mood that he has said was his point of departure—Bluebeard and Judith arrive at the castle like Maxim de Winter and his bride at Manderley, impeccably tuxedoed and gowned, with the headlights of their car gleaming through the mist—is not so remote a choice. The Gothic strain of 1940s cinema does indeed reach back to the same roots that Balázs and Bartók drew on. One thinks of Fritz Lang’s Freudian melodrama Secret Beyond the Door (1948)—the title alone seems like a deliberate allusion—with its landscape of fog and shadows and its trance-like air of morbid repetition compulsion. There are certainly moments in Bluebeard’s Castle that inevitably invoke the movies because one can hear how successfully Hollywood composers plundered the score for chord changes and moody coloration.
The cinematic associations of the opera have been explored before by Michael Powell in his 1963 film version, a work very much in the vein of his earlier The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, although far from commanding the same kind of material resources. Filming on a studio set with a great deal of netting and painted backdrops, and with the singers lip-synching to a previously recorded performance, Powell succeeded in making something equally expressive as film and opera, staying close to the singers as he tracks them in sinuous patterns to suggest precisely a dance of entrapment. With its saturated colors and flagrantly unreal settings Powell’s film achieves the tone of a disturbingly intrusive dream, and incidentally confirms the narrative sharpness of Balázs’s libretto, which functions perfectly as the most unwaveringly focused horror movie script.
The movie-ish feel of Treliński’s staging was amplified by video effects even more elaborate than those in Iolanta. There is a vast graphic sketch of an elevator shaft like something out of Metropolis; there are a multitude of separate enclosed spaces—a kitchen (well supplied with butcher knives, to represent the libretto’s armory), a tiled bathroom (as the setting for the “lake of tears” in the sixth chamber)—that create the equivalent of cross-cutting between different locations in a castle more reminiscent in its modern fixtures and bright colors of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining than of Hitchcock’s Manderley. (The bloodied woman who materializes as Judith bathes in a luxurious bathtub might be a direct Kubrick quote.) The blindfold worn by Judith during her first initiation into the castle, aside from linking up with the blindness of Iolanta, also suggested the erotic rituals of the château in The Story of O.
The century since Bluebeard’s Castle was created (composed in 1911, it was first performed in a revised version in 1918) has certainly not been slack in embroidering on the themes of the demonic husband and the endangered wife, or in filling out more explicitly the themes of dominance and subjugation that pervade the opera. At moments the Met production seems like a footnoted edition, appending relevant bits of cultural history to the libretto’s skeletal structure.
Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko were both splendid if not quite evenly matched. Her Judith exuded a flexible power that seemed quite capable of subduing his more opaque Bluebeard at more than one point, despite eruptions of violence like his knocking her to the floor several times. At moments Bluebeard began to seem a waxworks figure of menace come to life, an ominous foil to the central drama of Judith. Judith is of course aggressive; her insistent questioning, here as in the original fairy tale, is what drives the action forward. Yet the movement of the dialogue establishes a constant unstable pushing and pulling, a slippery shifting of the balance between them. If Bluebeard finally prevails, it is only after repeated attempts on his part to save Judith from himself.
At the Met they are not always on stage together, which has the effect of breaking up what is in fact an uninterrupted duet—uninterrupted although fractured, since they never sing together until the last moment, by which time any sense of loving union has gone adrift. There is an epic amplitude in Treliński’s staging—a sense of free rummaging in the attic and basement rooms of the mind—but it loses some of that sense of a tightly knit dance of seduction and retreat, of boundaries progressively intruded on from both sides, of fear and reluctance felt by each at different times. However one reads the relation of Bluebeard and Judith, there is no doubt that they are bound together from the beginning, the only question being the nature of the bond.
The horror movie apparatus is true to the opera’s overlay of lurid fairground Punch and Judy show. This is after all the story of Bluebeard; hard for it not to be about a psycho killer and his victim. Bluebeard and Judith are in some sense puppets caught in the structure of an old ballad, counting off the ritual steps leading to the stanza that will end it all. The old story (which in Perrault’s version had a happy ending) was a familiar parable about the perils of female curiosity. Balázs’s retelling was, in the words of Zoltán Kodály (for whom the libretto was originally intended), an expression of “the eternal insolubility of the man/woman problem.”
Yet as reimagined by Bartók the beauty of the opera is in the force with which each of them, at every moment, pushes back against being enclosed or defined. Questions provoke further questions. Between the notes are emotional abysses. Up until the last, nothing is settled, no identity is fixed, no choice is final. The life of the opera consists of the struggle to avoid that final definition. Its inevitability is nonetheless signaled by the grieving that seeps into all the otherwise gorgeous and divertingly various music, like the blood that Judith finds among the flowers and jewels.
No single production can do more than light up certain facets of Bluebeard’s Castle’s shifting moods and contradictory identities. The work seems designed to fiercely resist a definitive reading of its motives. It induces if anything a sense of complicity in the spectator, of intimate involvement at a decidedly entranced and irrational level. Treliński and Gergiev inhabit that level with a full appreciation of its beauty and strangeness, and the final emotional effect is lingering and devastating. To register that only an hour has passed is not the least strange part of it.