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…
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