The Met Streams Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle

by Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note these can be streamed from www.metopera.org

Tuesday, June 9

Tchaikovsky’s  Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle ~ 3 HRS 06 MIN

Conducted by Valery Gergiev, starring Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała in Iolanta, and Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko in Bluebeard’s Castle. Transmitted live on February 14, 2015.

Two very different – and differently dark – fairy tales share a unique double bill today. The first, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, explores the subject of a blind-from-birth princess who is kept ignorant of even the existence of sight, ostensibly to spare her the pain of understanding her own disability. The second, Bartók’s only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, is one of opera’s most harrowing and enigmatic works. It is a darkly surreal psychological thriller about a troubled man after the arrival of his latest bride. It definitely shows off the great Hungarian composer’s visceral style to impressive and certainly disturbing effect.

Both operas deal with controlling relationships. In one, a father has convinced himself that he is protecting his daughter by keeping her completely isolated and unaware of her own condition; in the other, a woman loses herself by being obsessively devoted to an inscrutable man. Common to both operas is the psychological yearning to ‘see’ more deeply into life.

As the Met’s program notes point out, they were written only twenty years apart. Both are fairy tales which have been consciously transmuted into symbolist allegories; both center on a woman striving to find truth but kept in ignorance by a powerful man. Valery Gergiev conducts Mariusz Trelinski’s production of these rarely heard one-act operas. Anna Netrebko (we’ve seen her in 10 different roles already!) stars as the blind princess of the title in Iolanta opposite Piotr Beczała (we’ve seen him in six so far – three opposite Netrebko) as Vaudémont, the young man who loves her—and awakens her desire to be able to see. Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko (we’ve seen him in two previous broadcasts) are Judith and Bluebeard in Bartók’s thriller.

Iolanta – The blind Iolanta has been sequestered since birth in what is supposed to be a beautiful enclosed garden on the king’s estate where she is cared for by Bertrand and Martha. In the Met’s setting, however (elements of which are shared by the two operas), the garden refuge has become some kind of dark, foreboding forest hiding a hunting lodge with animal skulls on the walls that is surrounded by tangled, uprooted trees suspended in a thick mist. It makes one think they borrowed the set from the even darker fairy tale, Rusalka. Iolanta is unaware that she is a princess – or even that she is blind. No one caring for her can speak of light, or color, or sight. Her first aria “Nyet, nichevo ne nado…” explains that she is bothered by sadness and a sense that she is missing something important that other people possess or can experience, but she cannot. In addition to keeping her away from the world, and vice versa, her father has betrothed her to Duke Robert who has never met her and has also been kept unaware of her blindness.

On a visit to Iolanta, her father has brought with him Ibn-Hakia, a famed Moorish physician. Upon examining her he declares that Iolanta can be cured, but that the physical cure will only work if she is psychologically prepared for it. She must be made aware of her own blindness and the world of the sighted. Ibn-Hakia sings the monologue “Dva mira: plotskij i dukhovnyj” (Two worlds), explaining the interdependence of the mind and the body. The king refuses the treatment, claiming that if it does not work, her happiness will be ruined.

Duke Robert and his friend Count Vaudémont arrive at the court – Robert has come to try to get out of his betrothal to Iolanta since he has fallen in love with another woman. He sings of his love in the aria (Who can compare to my Mathilde). Walking in the forest, Vaudémont finds the entrance to Iolanta’s secret lodge and ignoring the sign which threatens death to anyone who enters, he sees the sleeping Iolanta, and instantly falls in love. Robert assumes Vaudémont has been bewitched by a sorceress and runs to bring troops to rescue him. Meanwhile, Iolanta awakens and, of course – it’s love at first word. He asks her for a red rose as a keepsake and when she twice brings him a white one, he realizes she is blind. Taking it upon himself to enlighten her, so to speak, she becomes even more fascinated.

Her father, however, discovers them and although Vaudémont pledges his love even though she is blind, Ibn-Hakia points out that his treatment might now be a success since Iolanta has heard about sight. The king is furious at Vaudémont and Iolanta herself is conflicted; she has never had a desire to see. For ignoring the warning signs, the king threatens to execute Vaudémont if the treatment does not work. This, of course, provides Iolanta with a reason to be willing to see. The ending is “happy” – if not idyllic – Iolanta is frightened by the world of sight and her fears are only partially subdued by Vaudémont’s professed devotion.

Bluebeard’s Castle – literally, The Castle of the Blue-Bearded Duke, is performed here in the original Hungarian (a casting challenge that the Met proved more than up to), and is a disturbing psychological thriller about a woman drawn to the fearsome Bluebeard’s brooding nature and neediness (think the Flying Dutchman), despite the rumors that he may have murdered his previous wives. Judith is convinced that her love can bring light to Bluebeard’s dark life – ah the delusions of women bent on reform! This surreal tale begins and ends chillingly – with no relief for the entire hour. But just between us, in spite of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music in Iolanta, and the completely gruesome nature of Bluebeard, I actually “enjoyed” this one more – both the music, and even the disturbing, but artistically innovative, cinematic presentation of this intriguing work.

Judith is coming home to Bluebeard’s castle for the first time after their marriage – Bartók includes the Castle on the dramatis personæ page, and this production surrounds the audience with creaking, clanking, moaning sounds from the castle that fulfill that directive. Judith has left her comfortable family home because Bluebeard’s secrets fascinate and mesmerize her. The doors to the castle close behind her and while she realizes that they may never again open for her, she believes her love will change him and bring light into the gloomy darkness.

At the sight of the gloom, Judith is offered the opportunity to leave but declines, professing her love. She insists, however, that all the doors in the castle be opened to let in light and air. Bluebeard refuses saying there are private places that must be respected and asking her to love him unconditionally with no further questions (ah – Lohengrin with an equally deadly ending!). Like her soul mate, Elsa, she persists and eventually prevails to her own peril – he will open the doors – and there are seven. Each of the doors opens upon fantastical, horrific scenes. The first is a torture chamber stained with blood, the second is an armory full of bloody weapons, the third is a treasury with a horde of bloodied jewels, but the fourth is a garden of great beauty. Behind the fifth is a window onto Bluebeard’s vast kingdom. The first five rooms have now been sunlit, but blood has stained them all.

Bluebeard again pleads with her to stop; the castle cannot get any brighter. After coming this far, however, Judith will not be stopped. Opening the sixth door as a shadow passes over the castle, she encounters a vast lake of tears – but at least there is no blood. For the final time, Bluebeard begs her to stop – to simply love him and ask no more questions – the last door must remain shut forever. Again, she insists, asking him about his former wives, suggesting that it is their blood in all the other rooms, and their tears in the Lake. She believes that their bodies will be behind the last door. He hands her the last key, and behind the seventh door are Bluebeard’s three former wives, but still alive, dressed in crowns and jewelry. They silently emerge, and Bluebeard, apparently overcome with emotion, prostrates himself before each of them, praising each in turn. He identifies them as his wives of dawn, midday, and dusk. Then, turning to Judith, he praises her as his wife of the night. She is horrified and begs him to stop, but it is far too late. He bedecks her in the same jewelry that the others wear. She finds it incredibly heavy. Her head begins to droop under the weight, and she follows the other wives along a beam of moonlight and through the seventh door. The door closes after her and Bluebeard is left alone as all fades to total darkness.

Photo Credits

1.             Anna Netrebko-center-as Iolanta in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at the Met. Photo Credit – Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.

2.             Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard in Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera, 2015. Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.

3.               Scene from Iolanta / Bluebeard’s Castle at the Met. Photo Credit – Beatriz Schiller, Opera News, 2015.

4.              Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Piotr Beczała as Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at the Met. Photo Credit – Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.

5.              Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard in Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera, 2015. Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

6.             Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard in Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera, 2015. Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

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