Written by: Alexander Campbell
The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.
#8: Iolanta / Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
Who wrote it?
Iolanta is one of Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known operas, something of a rarity outside Russia, unlike Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame). As so often Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest was responsible for the libretto, here based on a Danish play, King René’s daughter. Iolanta was premiered in St Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1892. And has long-championed the work, particularly under Valery Gergiev.
Bluebeard’s Castle is the only opera composed by Béla Bartók. Premiered in 1918 it has become increasingly popular in the last 50 or so years. It is heard regularly in concert performance, the vivid orchestration feeding each listener’s imagination. The libretto, loosely based on a fantasy tale by Charles Perrault, was penned by Bartók’s fellow-Hungarian poet Béla Balázs. Many other operas based on the Bluebeard myth have been composed – Bartók’s is the most taut and atmospheric.
What’s it all about?
Iolanta is a passionate story about a young princess who has been blind from birth. Kept secluded by her father King René, her servants and confidantes have strict instructions not to reveal her lack of sight or her privileged position. Instinctively she feels something is lacking but cannot fathom what. René has engaged a doctor to restore Iolanta’s sight. The doctor insists she will only recover when she understands her predicament and wishes to see.
René has arranged a political marriage for Iolanta to Robert, Duke of Burgundy, who is on his way to the palace to seal the partnership even though his amorous feelings lie elsewhere. Robert and his friend Vaudémont get lost on their way and inadvertently chance upon the walled garden of René’s palace. There are deterrent signs threatening death to intruders. Vaudémont ignores these despite Robert’s protestations. There he encounters Iolanta. Stunned by her beauty he asks for a red rose. She gives him a white one, and when he corrects her it becomes apparent she cannot see. He tries to explain what this means.
Her father arrives and is shocked to find the stranger. He offers Vaudémont the chance to leave rather than die, explaining that she is betrothed elsewhere. At this point Robert arrives to rescue his friend. Vaudémont urges Robert to be honest with René, that his affections lay elsewhere, and the King magnanimously releases him from the contract and promises Iolanta to Vaudémont. Iolanta now has a reason to see and her sight returns.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, in Bartók’s opera, the mysterious Duke Bluebeard leads headstrong new wife Judith inside his forbidding home. They have eloped and married, against the express wishes of her family concerned about his shady past and previous marriages.
The fortress is dark and foreboding, but when the entrance is closed Judith sees seven doors. To his protestations and warnings, together with sighs that emerge from the walls themselves, Judith brooks no refusal and demands to see inside the rooms. In the first four she finds a torture chamber, an armoury, a treasure vault and a luxurious garden, and on closer inspection each is discovered to be bloodstained. Bluebeard’s expansive domains, behind Door Five, illuminate the castle brightly. Again, Judith senses blood. Within Door Six, opened despite Bluebeard’s bleakest warnings, is a lake of tears. The final door remains closed. Judith asks about his former wives…
Look out for…
Tchaikovsky’s romantic and lyrical music needs no general introduction. The title role of Iolanta requires a soprano with plaintive qualities to the sound and Vaudémont a heady tenor. Their duet is a richly harmonic extended scena.
Bartók’s score is an opulently expressive one. The subtle orchestration paints gloom, and the scope of what lies behind each door is brilliantly realised. The presence of blood emerges subtly and the passage leading up to and through the giant Fifth Door is monumental and thrilling. Bluebeard’s last utterances are beautifully modulated and offer the bass-baritone a change to demonstrate a flowing line and myriad colours.
Who’s in it?
Valery Gergiev leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in Mariusz Trelińsky’s new productions. The casting of the respective pairs of lovers is decadently strong. Glamorous Anna Netrebko sings the blind heroine – a part for which her dark-hued and dramatic voice is ideally suited. Partnering her is handsome Polish tenor Piotr Beczala.
Bluebeard is sung by the cavernous-voiced and tall Mikhail Petrenko and expectations will be running high. The part of Judith is taken by Nadja Michael, who has moved from the lower voice type upwards over her career. Her forceful soprano and prodigious acting talents should make her an unusually feisty Judith.
When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at the Met itself, midday-30, on Saturday February 14 beginning at 5.30 p.m. in UK cinemas: ideal for Valentine’s Day!