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Originally published February 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 23, 2009 at 9:49 AM

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Opera preview | Modern staging illuminates "Bluebeard's Castle," "Erwartung"

Quebecois director Robert Lepage stages "Bluebeard's Castle" and "Erwartung" for Seattle Opera.

Special to The Seattle Times

Opera preview

"Bluebeard's Castle" and "Erwartung"

Opens Saturday and runs through March 7, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $25-$172 (206-389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org).

Operatic scenery usually portrays the landscape or the living space that characters inhabit. For the two works on Seattle Opera's upcoming double bill, however, the setting is interior: What we are called to witness is the inner workings of a man's psyche and of a woman's tortured imagination.

Robert Lepage, whose production of "Bluebeard's Castle" and "Erwartung" has been acclaimed around the world since it was first presented by the Canadian Opera Company 17 years ago, explained his approach to these two groundbreaking works in a recent interview.

The subject matter of Bartók's early but masterly one-act opera, like that of his two ballets, is man's attempt to fulfill himself by achieving communication and union with his mate. Composed in 1911 and revised the following year, "Bluebeard" was Bartók's first assault on this weighty subject, and the drama it projects is chillingly tragic in outcome: In the process of seeking to open his inner self to another, Bluebeard unleashes forces that destroy his desired mate.

His bride, Judith, insists on opening one by one the seven doors in the hall of his castle — for "castle" understand "soul" — symbolically revealing in turn a torture chamber, an armory, a treasure house of jewels, a garden, a broad expanse of land, a lake of tears, and finally the abode of three former wives, whom she is doomed to join.

Despite the evident grimness of this riveting story, Bartók clothed it in music that is often ravishingly beautiful.

Schoenberg's "Erwartung" was composed two years earlier, to a libretto by Marie Pappenheim that may be described as a psychological drama of one character. A woman searches for her lover in a forest at night. After much foreboding, she finds his dead body lying near the house of the rival who has taken him from her.

Here again much of the score, as in such other early Schoenberg works as "Verklärte Nacht," belies modernism with its evocative and luxuriant sonorities. The melodic line follows every turn of the woman's troubled thoughts; her fears are further illuminated by the astonishingly subtle orchestration, which also powerfully evokes the oppressive atmosphere of the forest itself — and again, for "forest," this time, understand "mind."

Lepage's celebrated production applies imaginative techniques to the illumination of these two absorbing tales. "Certainly," he told me in a recent interview, "we use the resources of modern-day technology, but we do not take the works out of their period. I try to follow step by step Bartók's stage intentions, but to push that vocabulary further with today's means.

"When I say 'today,' it feels strange, because actually the staging dates back to 1992, so it's 1992's technology used to express the feeling of two works that were both written at the turn of the 20th century."

The "gravity-defying acrobatics" promised in Seattle Opera's publicity are there, Lepage emphasizes, not as special effects but as an extension of mime or dance, elements already implied in both librettos. "It's a very modern show," he says, "very modern in its vocabulary, but very respectful of the intentions of turn-of-the-century Austria."

The two works are often paired together, and Lepage thinks this is because they were both created in the same part of the world against the shared background of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's declining years.

"With the Bartók piece," he explains, "you're listening to the end of an era, and with 'Erwartung' it's the beginning of an era" — the era, psychologically speaking, of Freud. The director has highlighted the Freudian aspect of Schoenberg's work by setting the scene in a mental ward.

Lepage's work aims toward an ending that satisfies on both the emotional and the intellectual levels. François Racine, who has been involved with the production from its earliest days and will restage it here, comments that the audience at that point is always "stunned."

What with that superb artist John Relyea portraying Bluebeard in the first half of the double bill, and the talented 28-year-old conductor Evan Rogister tackling his biggest assignment yet in the pit, Seattle's opera lovers are clearly in for an experience not only challenging but musically and dramatically rewarding.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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