Met Opera Live in HD: Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle – A Review

IolantaThose of you who follow the Two Gay Geeks know that, in addition to the fun sci-fi/fantasy genre goodness that can be found in print, television, or the big screen, we are also very much into opera. Just take a listen to our previous Podcast Episode 13 and you can see how much we love good opera. And before I go any further, I promise all of you who are interested that we will be doing a follow-up show where we finish discussing Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

But for now, I want to discuss something that was most recently broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in HD, and that is the pairing of two one act operas, the first being Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, followed up by Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

This broadcast was mostly touted as being a thriller. Let me start with Iolanta, where we basically have an aging father protecting his daughter who has been blind from birth. The daughter, Iolanta, has no concept of color, light, or anything else for that matter, as she has been sheltered for all of her life. Through an unexpected turn of events she is met by a man who falls in love, and wishes to marry her, in spite of her blindness. This opera has some mildly psychologically intriguing story elements to it, starting with the father and his almost obsessive (one might say “unhealthy”) desire to shelter Iolanta and the way she perceives the world. Now while I didn’t find the music to be universally exciting or moving as I have with other works by different composers, there were a few moments where the music was quite nice. The opera does present us with an absolutely gorgeous love duet between Iolanta and Vaudémont (the man who fell in love with her) that pretty much stopped the show. Unfortunately it didn’t stop the performance, as there was more music to perform, most of which fell flat for both Keith and me. That’s not to say that it was bad. It was simply “uninteresting.” I would also add, without giving away too many spoilers, that the opera does have a happy ending which sadly bordered on comical, and that simply took away from any enjoyment that the opera may have generated.

However, the cast for this opera was quite strong. The Russian soprano, and beloved Met Opera star, Anna Netrebko, played the role of Iolanta. Vaudémont was sung by tenor Piotr Beczala, and my personal favorite member of the cast, King René (Iolanta’s father) was sung by the Russian up and coming bass sensation, Ilya Bannik. For someone as young as he is, he played the part of King René with the feel of a 50 something year old father looking after his daughter. His acting was impeccable, and his voice was astounding. These were the highlights of this particular opera.

Bluebeard's CastleNow, let me discuss Bartok’s Bluebeard Castle. This opera came as a complete surprise to me. Keith and I originally had no intention of seeing this until we heard an incredible excerpt from the opera on Sirius/XM’s Met Opera Channel. It was of such power that I knew this was an opera I had to see.

The setting is immediately creepy. Instead of starting with an overture or some other form of musical introduction, all we hear is the sound of creaking wood with an equally creepy narration setting the scene for what is clearly more than just a thriller. This is going to be a horror story. It opens with Bluebeard and his girlfriend/wife (it’s never made clear) Judith, as she has come to live with him in his castle. As she explores it she realizes that it’s very dark and musty. She wants Bluebeard to open all of the doors (there are seven of them) to let in some light and fresh air. What follows is a horrifying discovery on Judith’s part, as she comes to realize who she has become romantically entangled with as well as her own destiny.

This opera has a minimal cast. There are only Bluebeard, played by Mikhail Petrenko, and Judith, sung by Nadja Michael. The production of this opera is unique, in that it is both grand, and yet minimalistic. Over the past several years (which was discussed on our Podcast Episode 13), the use of digital projection had been virtually perfected by the Met’s production company, allowing them to create images, both spectacular and abstract, alongside the performers. This opera did also make use of just a few freestanding sets, which in their use alone as minimal sets helped to create something incredibly surreal. Between the outstanding performances of our two singers, as well as this spellbinding production, we were presented with an opera that quite literally had me holding my breath right up until the very ending when the curtain finally drops. The Met called it a psychological thriller, and I had originally called it a horror. Perhaps the best description of Bluebeard’s Castle is to call it a “psychological horror,” for as the opera unfolds, as manifested by the opening of each of the seven doors in the castle, the truth is slowly revealed and becomes increasingly more horrifying until the final reveal which came as a total surprise to everyone.

While Iolanta really didn’t deliver much for me, Bluebeard’s Castle more than made up for it and ended up giving us both an enormously satisfying opera watching experience. The music is early 20th Century, but at no time does it become too contemporary resorting to something sounding like 12-tone opera. It’s not entirely atonal, but neither is it completely tonal. However, during the opening of the fifth door, the music presented by the orchestra, with a few lines sung by Bluebeard, is absolutely sensational and made use of some brilliantly orchestrated minor second intervals that made me feel as if I was being lifted out of my chair into a beautiful setting, which only helps to set up more suspense and horror which is yet to come.

This opera is quite clearly a theater piece, and was, interestingly enough, handled by a production designer (Mariusz Treliński) who gave this opera a 1940’s film noir feel and update because of his love of movies from that period. The production worked, and it only served to help deliver the suspense in a way that I don’t believe could have been done any other way. Keith and I were immediately drawn into the opera from the very beginning, and we observed that it really affected us both emotionally in ways that we had not anticipated. This is what good theater, good opera, is supposed to do.

The Live in HD series of operas from the Metropolitan Opera are incredible. Not only do you get a close-up look at what is happening on the stage (making every seat in the theater a good one), but you also get some wonderful behind the scenes action showing what goes on in staging an opera. The sound was excellent, and I was amazed at when the singers would cross from stage right to stage left, the voice would follow from one speaker in the theater to the next. If you can’t go to a live opera, then by all means, check out the Live in HD series. It is worth it!

These operas are still being performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the Live in HD encore will be on Wednesday, February 18, 2015 at 6:30 PM local time.

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