In Tchaikovsky's last opera, "Iolanta," a blind princess who knows nothing of sight learns to embrace threatening light. In Bartók's early opera, "Bluebeard's Castle," a young bride seeking dangerous thrills learns to embrace threatening darkness.
Iolanta finds, through love, escape from the castle in which she is kept confined by an overprotective father. Judith, though love, accepts confinement from a kinky father figure.
These one-act operas need companions for a full evening in the theater. At the Metropolitan Opera they are being staged together thanks to another controlling figure, the Polish director, Mariusz Trelinski, who joins them through the conventions of Hollywood horror movies.
Seen at the Met on Tuesday night, some things worked, much did not. But the cinematically conceived double bill, which is getting a lot of attention — although not all of it for operatic reasons — will have its big-screen test Saturday when the matinee performance in New York is shown live to movie theaters around the world as part of the Met's popular HD transmissions. (The performance will also be broadcast on radio.)
And Trelinski's timorously S&M "Bluebeard" has the added advantage of "Fifty Shades of Grey" timing.
The unwanted attention has been because the conductor is Valery Gergiev and the star of Tchaikovsky's opera is soprano Anna Netrebko. Two of Russia's most celebrated artists, they generate demonstrations in the U.S. for siding with their country in the conflict in Ukraine.
At an earlier "Iolanta" performance, a protester climbed on stage during the curtain call, frightening Netrebko. For Tuesday's performance, a handful of picketers stood outside the Met, but security has been tightened, and there was no trouble.
Although written only 20 years apart, "Iolanta" and "Bluebeard" represent radically different musical, theatrical, ontological and erotic sensibilities. "Iolanta" had its premiere in 1892 and shares its musical style and quality with the Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony ("Pathétique"). But the opera has been neglected, only recently beginning to be recognized as one of Tchaikovsky's musically great works.
A blind princess is kept literally in the dark by the king who creates an artificial environment in which she will never know there is such a thing as sight. A young knight risks death for not continuing to pull the wool over her eyes. She is given sight thanks to the curative powers of an Arab physician and the mystical powers of her love and happily marries her white knight with the blessing of her father, the King.
"Bluebeard," which premiered in Hungary in 1911, presages the disquiet of a new century. Judith attempts to bring the sun into Bluebeard's ominous castle, opening doors and discovering instruments of torture, jewels and flowers despoiled by blood. She will be his next, and willing, victim.
When Los Angeles Opera recently staged "Bluebeard" with Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," director Barrie Kosky let each opera be itself. But Trelinski — who says he has taken his inspiration from 1940 film noir and especially Hitchcock's "Rebecca" — chases a connection with pairing.
Maybe Iolanta doesn't find her nice knight, dressed in this production in what looks like a dorky white down jacket for the New York cold, quite so exciting, her tastes having been shaped by her dominating father.
So that may explain why for Trelinski "Iolanta" is conventional and operatically innocent, and "Bluebeard" is more modern and anything but innocent.
"Iolanta" begins with projections on a scrim showing a creepy forest with trees rising from the ground, their roots dangling. In her hut, deer heads decorate the wall. A vase with flowers sits on the table. Iolanta's father, King René, wears the uniform of a Fascist.
Netrebko (who can be an effective actress) and the clarion Polish tenor Piotr Beczala indulge in the usual hand-wringing emotions of operatic yore. Both sing exceedingly well (Netrebko stars in an excellent new recording of the opera).
Gergiev, who has been the conductor most responsible for reviving "Iolanta" (he conducted a concert performance of it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic 20 years ago), is an intense Tchaikovskian able to convey far more then 50 shades of instrumental darkness and light. But he is hampered by needing to balance the orchestra with singers too often placed in deep recesses of the stage, from where they sound far away.
In "Bluebeard," Judith and Bluebeard arrive in the same forest by car at Bluebeard's compound, a modernist mansion, which also has deer heads on the wall and a table with the vase of the same flowers.
Baritone Mikhail Petrenko is the elegant, cool Bluebeard. Soprano Nadja Michael is the voluptuous, hot Judith. He leads her gently into his realm and dark night. He looks on calmly as she explores her desires. Forgoing sight (and further linking her to Iolanta), she puts on a blindfold to best experience his torture chamber.
Horror film clichés abound. While Judith lounges sexily in her steaming bath in tiled room, a black-gloved hand slowly emerges through the door. The ending is a riff on "Night of the Living Dead." The sound design by Mark Grey of creaking doors add effective filmic atmosphere.
Michael, who has made a name as a fearless Salome in Strauss' opera, goes about as far erotically as she can at the Met and proves as riveting vocally as she is as an actress. Petrenko is all the more dangerous a Bluebeard for being a suavely understated one. Meanwhile, Gergiev brings out gorgeously dark and evocative colors from the Met orchestra.
Trelinski's confidence in the movies has it operatic uses, especially when it comes to teasing sexuality. But it can also blind him, so to speak, to the deeper, inner erotic unrest of Iolanta and Judith, which is the real and incomparable business of opera.