"Bluebeard"/ "Erwartung" double bill presents riveting stories, beautifully told
Robert Lepage's stagings of Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle" and Schoenberg's "Erwartung," restaged for Seattle Opera, explore the human condition with insight.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Bluebeard's Castle" and "Erwartung"Presented by Seattle Opera, through March 7, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $25-$172 (206-389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org).
Opera Review |
Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle" is a tragic parable of human isolation. Béla Balázs' libretto recounts Bluebeard's resistance to his new bride Judith's efforts to open the doors of his castle — that is, of his psyche. One exchange of dialogue encapsulates the conflict: "All the doors must be opened"; "Why, Judith?"; "Because I love you."
Originally conceived for the Canadian Opera in 1992 by Robert Lepage, and staged for Seattle Opera by François Racine, "Bluebeard" is one of the greatest productions of anything I have ever seen, and to write worthily of it is a huge challenge. I shall try.
But last things first — the second half of the bill is Schoenberg's "Erwartung" ("Expectation"), also receiving its first production by Seattle Opera, and this is perhaps easier to characterize. Based on a libretto by Marie Pappenheim, the 30-minute "monodrama" follows the deranged imaginings of The (unnamed) Woman, searching in a forest at night for her lover, who has deserted her for another, and whom, we may conclude, she has actually murdered.
Lepage stages the action in a mental ward — aptly, for the newfangled Freudian notions abuzz in fin-de-siècle Vienna played precisely to the composer's strengths. Schoenberg was as unsuited to creating normal human characters in music-drama as is Joyce Carol Oates in fiction. The realm of the bizarre and tormented is the natural habitat for both this novelist and this composer, and the tonal instability of Schoenberg's idiom ideally matches the mental instability of The Woman. "Erwartung," accordingly, is a tour de force of neurotic art, and Lepage's tour de force has been to devise a staging that renders it utterly convincing and absorbing.
With "Bluebeard's Castle," the beginning of the evening, with a black scrim enclosed in a frame of gold rectangles, immediately creates a Klimt-ish atmosphere evocative of the period and the milieu. Michael Levine's sets and costumes, Robert Thomson's lighting, Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy's media effects (including some uncanny floating entries and disappearances), and Joyce Degenfelder's hair and makeup design all mesh perfectly with Lepage's and Racine's marshaling of the figures on stage.
In both works, moreover, the actor-singers could not possibly be bettered. After Arthur Woodley's spine-tingling delivery of the spoken prologue, bass-baritone John Relyea and Polish mezzo Malgorzata Walewska — in her local debut — make a Bluebeard and Judith sumptuously sung, rivetingly acted and ideally balanced in personal authority.
Soprano Susan Marie Pierson, as The Woman in "Erwartung," is scarcely less compelling, even if Schoenberg's music gives her fewer and more fleeting opportunities for ingratiating vocalism. And in the pit, the young conductor Evan Rogister elicits wondrous playing from the orchestra — the only thing missing is a real pipe organ for the majestic flood of tone when Bluebeard's fifth door opens on the vista of his vast domains.
Far more important than such a detail is the imaginative vision Lepage brings to every aspect of both works. His use of shadow in "Bluebeard" is especially telling. At one point, Bluebeard's shadow falls sharply on the right wall, while Judith's is soft-edged — appropriately, for we see the action through Bluebeard's eyes more than through Judith's. (That's particular to this story, and not just a gender stereotype from a male librettist, composer and reviewer — the equally male novelist Julian Barnes, in "Before She Met Me," characterizes his couple's conflict the other way around, the man destructively probing, the woman defensive.)
In an art form sometimes wedded to trivialities, where, as George Bernard Shaw put it, "the tenor and the soprano repeatedly call attention to the fact that at last they meet again," it is a rare and precious pleasure to find authors and a director capable of exploring the human condition with such insight.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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