Are You Afraid of the Dark? — Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle at the Met Opera

We caught last night’s “double-bill” performance from the cheap seats – or rather standing room. We “won” the rush ticket draw for the premiere on January 26 what got cancelled due to the subway closings in preparation for the blizzard that wasn’t. We were really looking forward to a romantic walk home, maybe stopping at every open bar, diner and Dunkin Donuts on the way, but it was not to be. We tried rush a couple more times but didn’t win, so we went with the next best thing. And while we really don’t mind standing – the better half wants a standing desk at work – when a well-heeled couple asked if they could trade with us at half-time because they were leaving early, we didn’t refuse.

So what did we think?

First Iolanta: When a humongous holographic deer was projected onto the stage it looked like a great start. But the setting and stage direction, which at first seemed beautiful, began to grate. Iolanta lives in a house within a secluded garden. The house has a wall with a door. but otherwise it’s only a framed room. It seemed in the beginning there was a rule, and characters could only enter or exit through the door, so I “imagined” the clear walls were glass, as other characters could see through them, but Iolanta couldn’t hear through them – unless they were speaking to her directly. But then about halfway through people could walk in and out through the frame. As in many operas, conversations take place in front of a character on stage who is not supposed to be able to hear what the audience hears. But in Iolanta this was staged in a way that made disbelief hard to suspend.The garden is described in the libretto several times by different characters as a floral paradise, but what we see around the house are uprooted trees and darkness.

Couldn’t they have gotten the silk poppies out of storage from Prince Igor? Or was Gelb afraid bringing them back would enrage the unions?

How to piss off a stagehand.
Saving Anna from protesters.

Super-diva Anna Netrebko seemed tentative at first. Maybe the possibility of some enraged Ukrainian or gay Russian storming the stage was getting to her, or perhaps the role was less than perfect for her talents. Iolanta is a blind princess, described in the libretto as innocent, young, frail and helpless. While the uncertainty might be part of the characterization, it felt like it was Netrebko who hadn’t quite found her way in. Despite some very solid singing from Ilya Bannik as King Rene and Elchin Azizov as the “Moorish Doctor,” the enterprise seemed to be lacking energy. However, things picked up considerably when Piotr Beczala as Vaudemont and Aleksei Markov as Robert entered the scene. Robert is a small role with one lovely aria, which Markov handled beautifully. Beczala was, as usual, amazing, and once Netrebko was paired with him, she was back on her game. Their duet was the highlight of the evening.

Tchaikovsky’s music, conducted by Valerie Gergiev was melodic and haunting.

Bluebeard’s Castle – A lot of people were there for Anna, and left at intermission. We were actually looking forward to seeing Bartok’s opera. The better-half has a language obsession and it’s not like there’s a ton of Hungarian operas. The libretto, by poet Bela Belazs, even translated into supertitles is beautifully poetic and evocative. But it’s also abstract, the way poetry and songs are. It might have worked better, made more sense, with two singers on a bare stage and the orchestra playing in the pit – a concert rather than an opera – a long duet.

The setting is of course that legendary castle, in which Judith gets keys to various rooms, each one bringing her one step closer to the ultimate horror, but in this version there’s really no mystery. Bluebeard is sinister throughout, the walls weep, there’s blood, and the ending (which was apparently changed early on according to the wikipedia) was baffling.

Trying to scratch out the meaning of this is difficult. Metaphorically, what comes to my mind is this: We are all guilty. We enjoy the spoils of wars, cheap goods made in China and other places by prisoners and children. We ask questions and act like we want to know, but we really don’t. In the end these things destroy us, weigh us down, and keep us alone.

But I have no idea whether that was the intent.

50 Shades or Grand Opera?

Maybe given the blindfold that Judith sports for a scene or two, it was supposed to be an operatic trailer for the upcoming 50 Shades movie. The stories are similar. Young woman runs off with mysterious wealthy man with a bad reputation and a secret chamber or two.

Nadja Michael a German soprano, playing Judith as an operatic Hitchcock blonde, channelled her inner-mezzo to give us a sound that emanated from her core. It was a sexy, bold performance. Mikhail Petrenko matched her well.

Worth staying for.

(Enjoy my opera reviews? You can also catch my television recaps on HNTP, AND you could check out this novel I wrote that places the “real life” heroine of La Traviata — Marie Duplessis, in present day Brooklyn as a very post-modern vampire. And wouldn’t you to love to know what she thinks of the Willy Decker production?)