Monday, February 16, 2015

Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle: Fantasy and Nightmare

Iolanta by Peter Tchaikovsky, 1891

The performances were outstanding in the Metropolitan Opera's presentation of Iolanta, as broadcast Live in HD at local cinemas, on Valentine's Day, 2015.

In the first place, the singers had irresistible music to work with. Just about everyone is familiar with certain parts of the Nutcracker Ballet, so you know how melodic and appealing Tchaikovsky can be, but Iolanta is a better vehicle for his talent. The music for Iolanta expresses one profound emotion after another: sadness, fear, guilt, longing, confusion, fascination, love, joy, fulfillment—Tchaikovsky embodied them all in music.

Since it is a fantasy of all-fulfilling love, the action is centered on the soprano, here sung marvelously by Anna Netrebko. Iolanta is a princess who was born blind. Her father has concealed her condition, which he must consider a sort of fate worse than death, by isolating her in a remote location and surrounding her with obedient servants, who never mention sight or light.

Written by the composer's brother, Modest Tchaikovsky,  the libretto, or script, was very insightful about Iolanta's predicament. One of her earliest lines is, "I feel like I'm missing something." Not only is she unable to see, but she has been kept in the dark. Everyone seems to love and care for her, yet her heart is full of longing.

Anna Netrebko as Iolanta.
This and all photos in this article are Internet grabs.
Netrebko really appeared to feel Iolanta's frustration, and her singing was poignant, as well as lovely. She looked good, too. Netrebko is in her forties, and a little over-weight, but she carries her full figure with such grace that she seems to represent a new ideal. As a Russian herself, the soprano conveyed the feeling that she loved singing in her own language, and that she had always known and loved this work by one of the most beloved Russian composers.

Iolanta's father, King René, is an asshole; there's no other way to put it from a modern woman's point of view. The reason he hides the truth about her handicap from Iolanta is that he can't bear to watch her suffering. He thinks he is being punished for his own sins. He begs fate to take pity on him. Hello? Talk about your self-centered male. The part was sung with elevated self-pity by Ilya Bannik, an exceptionally melodic base; for most singers, it's difficult to keep true tones in the low registers, but it's easy for Bannik.

To give Iolanta's blindness additional depth and meaning, a famed Moorish physician called Ibn-Hakia is brought in by the King to cure her. He proclaims that his cure will only work if she is told the truth of her situation and sings a swell aria about the interdependence of the mind and body. Ibn-Hakia was sung with appropriate gravity by baritone Elchin Azizov.

True to form, King René refuses to allow the truth because he couldn't bear it if the treatment didn't work and Iolanta had to deal directly with her blindness, even though he had declared passionately in his opening aria that he would make any sacrifice in order to restore her sight. So Iolanta must go on living in benign but suffocating isolation and ignorance.

Iolanta has been betrothed since childhood to Duke Robert, but the first thing that we learn about him is that he is gloriously in love with a voluptuous woman called Mathilda. Aleksei Markov sang this aria so robustly that Mathilda seems like the ideal object of passion. Robert hasn't met his betrothed, and her blindness has been kept secret from him.

His companion, Count Vaudémont, responds by declaring that his ideal woman is pure and chaste. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala sang this highly contrasting aria with pure, soaring tones, expressing universal longing for unblemished perfection. Beczala was a wonder in this role. His voice just carried me away, and he looked really macho in stylish white pants and tailored ski parka.

Piotr Beczala as  Count Vaudémont
So these two buddies, Vaudémont and Robert, are out hiking when they happen into Iolanta's private world, despite its being posted against intruders. When they encounter Iolanta, Robert doesn't know who she is, and doesn't care, but Vaudémont falls in love at first sight, for who could be more innocent than sheltered Iolanta?

Ironically, his first impulse is to tell her about the wonders of sight, the very thing that would threaten her innocence. He sings a beautiful aria about visual beauty and the power of light. She responds with a noble song that could be an anthem for all visually handicapped people. She says that she doesn't need sight to appreciate the world. "Do I need eyes to smell the roses or hear your voice?" How could they help falling in love?

Vaudémont can't help falling in love with Iobanta.
When King René and Ibn-Hakia discover the couple, the king is predictably furious, but the wise doctor declares that since Iolanta now knows the truth, his cure for blindness might work. At this point, the theme takes an important turn. Despite Vaudémont's enticing description of sight, Iolanta is not sure she wants it. After all, sight would make a total and complete change in her life. After so many years of not even knowing she was blind, she would be naturally be frightened to enter a whole new world. This is why myth resonates: it creates archetypal situations we all understand. Isn't it true that people are so often afraid to learn the very thing we most need to know?

Suddenly the King steps up to the plate and makes a genuine effort to help his daughter. In order to motivate her to break through, he pretends, quite convincingly, that he will have Vaudémont killed for trespassing if the cure doesn't work. The point is that love is the ultimate motivation. Vaudémont for his part gallantly declares that he loves Iolanta regardless of whether or not she can see. Bravely jumping into the unknown, Iolanta submits to the mysterious cure, and it works. She sings an aria about her experience. The King consents to the marriage of Iolanta and Vaudémont. Then a huge chorus appears out of nowhere for a glorious grand finale.

Ibn-Hakia, played by Elchin Azizov,
with Iolanta after her sight is restored.
The script of this opera is a remarkable critique of the roles of men and women, and a feminist interpretation was enhanced by producer Mariusz Trelinski. He symbolized Iolanta's inner world of darkness by the forbidding forest surrounding her sterile chamber. Iolanta's father dominates her life for selfish reasons, as fathers have been known to do, and prevents her sexual awakening, a common tactic. She is treated like a doll without a will, and her father, her doctor, and her suitor compete for control.

The ending is joyous—with Iolanta having her dreams come true. But, if you take these characters seriously, wouldn't you guess that her husband might to turn out to be another kind of keeper? Won't he want to dominate her, to keep her for himself, to frustrate her continuing desire for knowledge?

This brings us to the second opera on this double bill.

Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartók, 1911

Producer Mariusz Trelinski manages to make it seem that Bluebeard's Castle could be taking up where Iolanta left off, and that instead of living "happily ever after," she might be entering a nightmare in which she ends up back where she started, or a symbolically similar situation.

The victimized woman in this opera is known as Judith. She is a new bride who has, like Iolanta at the end of the previous opera, abandoned her family and everything in search of love and truth. Her new husband's castle seems to be in another part of the same creepy forest where Iolanta had been living. Iolanta's lonely abode and Bluebeard's huge mansion are both adorned with skulls and horns of deer.

In fact, the deer imagery throughout gives a clue to Trelinksi's interpretation. During Iolanta's orchestral prologue, images of deer are shown with that "caught in the headlights" look, and when King René enters he has been out hunting, and carries a carcass, which he hangs and guts. Like the deer, women in these operas are victims of the male urge to dominate.

The most fascinating aspect of this opera for me was the fit figure of Nadja Michael, the soprano who sang the role of Judith. Her arms are sculpted, her abs are firm, her back muscles ripple, and her breasts are worthy of Renoir. I kept thinking, "There's a singer who spends a lot of time at the gym."
Trelinski produces films as well as opera in his native Poland, and he used Michael's expressive body to great advantage to tell the story. She is presented in a sexy dress, a skimpy slip, and in one scene, she appears in a bathtub, tantalizingly close to naked. Naturally, Michael is a very physical actress, and expresses her feelings as much with her body as with her voice. (For her final bow, she put her hands flat on the floor, absolutely the greatest flexibility I've ever seen in an opera singer.)

Producer Trelinski shows of Nadja Michael's
rippling back muscles.
Imagine! An athletic soprano!
In an interview, Nadja Michael said that she thinks every woman has a self-destructive desire to submit completely to a powerful man. Iolanta, for instance, has been totally dominated by her father, and totally cared for. Wouldn't it be likely that she would slip back into a similar relationship? Moreover, since she had gotten started on a quest for knowledge, wouldn't she want to know more and more, especially about her new husband? Thus, Judith wants to know everything about her new home; she wants to open all the doors, and Bluebeard reluctantly complies.

Judith wants Bluebeard to reveal all his secrets,
here symbolized by a door with decorative bars.
Here is the power of myth again. Let's just say Bluebeard is everyman, enlarged to frightening dimensions. Wouldn't it be true that most men have done things they would prefer to hide from their wives? Some sort of recklessness, a gross lack of sensitivity, taking advantage of someone's weakness, perhaps outright deceit? And so these secrets are symbolized for Bluebeard by one room full of weapons of war, another of instruments of torture, and another by ill-gotten gain, represented by blood-stained jewels.

A big clunker here is why does Judith marry Bluebeard even though she has heard bad rumors about him? Is it so unusual for a woman to marry a man that her family and friends disapprove? To love some guy despite his flaws? To think that her love is so great it can heal him and bring out his true virtue?

Another big problem is what kind magical powers does Bluebeard have? What happened to his previous wives? In the original Bluebeard myth, the count was just a heartless murderer. But this opera gives the character a more psychological interpretation. The part was sung by Mikhael Petrenko, who conveys the idea that Bluebeard is on a quest for unconditional love, love without questions and demands. After all, Judith does get to be quite a nag about all these locked doors. Time and again, Bluebeard poignantly pleads with her to love him, just love him, without questions. It's as though she eventually forces him to commit an act that he is trying to resist.

Bluebeard, as played by Mikhael Petrenko, was strong enough
to be threatening but vulnerable enough to be appealing.
But just what is that act? When Judith finally opens the last door, she finds his previous wives in an ambivalent state. Beautifully clad women are milling about but there is an open grave in the foreground. Bluebeard says that he has "frozen" or "fixed" each one in the time of day he met her—one each for morning, noon, and evening. Uh, just how did he do that?

Setting that aside, Judith is attracted by the women's fixed perfection. If Judith had been Iolanta in a previous life—the picture of innocence—she might just long to be simple and pure again. Symbolically, the important point is that if a woman does submit entirely to a man's will, she ends up a zombie, however well cared for. Very good point. And if she is a zombie, the man is forced to continue seeking unconditional love, from a woman with her own sense of self.

It is very much to the credit of the composer, as well as the the producer, that I got so drawn into the symbolism of the stories. Béla Bartók was a Hungarian composer who changed the sound of music in the 20th century by introducing new forms of tonality, based on different scales than Tchaikovsky used. In other words, his music not harmonious in the traditional way. Its discordant sounds are very well suited to expressions of domination and submission, of longing and fear, of the siren call of oblivion. Most of the time, opera composers seem to look for any old convenient plot to dangle their their songs on, but Bartók made me feel that he was genuinely concerned about the roles of men and women, and how they sabotage their chances for love.

The Met presented Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle, both short works, together on Valentine's Day, and the message seemed very appropriate: Love is cool, and all that, but in order to work, love needs to be based on mutual respect.

An encore presentation is scheduled at your local cinema on Wednesday, February 18.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Tales of Hoffman: Opera or Talent Show?

One of the major writers of the Romantic Era—dating roughly from 1770s to 1830s—was E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German who was popular for his fantasy and horror stories.

In the 1850's, a pair of dramatists concocted a play called Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann) that combined bits of three of his fantastic tales. The stories were loosely connected by the dramatic device of making them episodes from Hoffmann's own past, which he was relating to his tavern companions on a single evening. Taken literally, this is ridiculous. In his first story, he falls in love with a mechanical doll, which he takes for human because he is wearing rose-colored glasses. In the second, he falls in love with a great singer who has a bad heart; she literally sings herself to death. In the third, he is seduced and abandoned by a courtesan who was bribed with a diamond to steal his reflection. Literally ridiculous. 

However, if a story-teller were to while away an evening at his local hangout by regaling his friends with sensational tales, he might very well pretend that all these things had happened to him personally. Moreover, if you take the stories symbolically, it all becomes plausible. Men do fall in love with highly artificial women with facelifts, wigs, and spandex underwear. Men do fall for women who are impossible matches. Men can be deceived and abandoned. 

Jacques Offenbach is a French composer who was born in Germany in 1819. In the 1850s and 1860s he became very popular for his comic operas. Even today most people have heard his ebullient theme used for the "can-can" dance. You could probably sing it now if you saw dancers high-kicking in their ruffled skirts. He cranked these operettas out at the rate of 4 or 5 per year, which implies that quality was not his highest concern.

Toward the end of his life, Offenbach decided to write a serious opera. He needed a good story, and everyone agreed that the popular play Tales of Hoffmann would lend itself to a musical setting. After all, the mechanical doll thrills Hoffmann with her coloratura singing (florid trills with very high notes), and his second love is a dying soprano. If Offenbach used the bar as the setting, he could even throw in a few choral drinking songs; those always go over well. Offenbach spent two years working on the score, trying to make something special. Unfortunately, he died before it was quite finished. Ever since, various composers and librettists have filled it out in different ways. Nevertheless, it has been fairly popular, and it is still considered a standard.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is currently running a revival of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, and we saw it Live in HD at our local theater Saturday morning (1/31/15).

The opera's story and structure are less entertaining than you might think. It moves along episodically, plodding through one story after another. The stories are so irrational and so thinly connected that it reminded me of watching a high school talent show, in which a flimsy narration is woven around unrelated acts. One act starts with a lot of complicated exposition, then jumps to an aria. Another act starts with a very dramatic aria and then the context is filled in later; this is quite disorienting. Both the prolog and the epilog have a comedy song about a misshapen dwarf that has no bearing at all on the plot. Every number has a big, boffo conclusion, and then a pause where the audience can applaud without interrupting the mood.

So, if you can drop your hankering for dramatic coherence, emotional depth, and musical continuity, what do you have left to enjoy? You get a lot of great songs and a lot of great singing. Offenbach was a master of singable, memorable melodies, and the Met's cast is top-notch, as always.

Hoffmann's role was sung by the Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo. Youthful, handsome, and enthusiastic, he fit the role well, and his singing was sweet and touching, essentially romantic. 

Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann, regaling his drinking buddies
with stories of fantastical romances
In all the stories, Hoffmann has a nemesis—someone who foils his romantic plans for his own reasons. Though the character changes, all the roles were sung by experienced baritone Thomas Hampson. Hampson is a very handsome man with commanding presence, and some of his singing was excellent, but some of the lines were really intended for a bass, and for these his singing was rather guttural.

Vittorio Grigolo with Thomas Hampson, who played his nemesis.

Another character who continues throughout is first presented as Hoffmann's muse; through most of the opera, the muse masquerades as Hoffmann's dear friend Nicklausse. This is a so-called "trouser role," meaning that a woman sings it dressed as a man. The mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay was a revelation, literally, in this role. She is a beautiful and slender woman, and in the opening scene she appears in nothing but a pink silk slip of a dress; you could watch her abs work while she sang. Through most of the opera she is dressed like a man, and also stands and acts convincingly like an insolent young man. In the final scene, she returns to her nearly nude form to represent Hoffmann's essential creativity. Unfortunately, her role in the meantime is ambivalent. Sometimes she appears to want to protect Hoffmann from his illusions; sometimes she seems to be aiding his nemesis. 

Vittorio Grigolo with Kate Lindsey, as his friend Nicklausse.
Each love story stars a separate diva. When the play opens, Hoffmann is drinking in a saloon located next door to an opera house. He has a date with the soprano, Stella, after the performance. The role of Stella was sung by Hibla Gerzmava, who also sang the role of Antonia, the soprano who sings herself to death. Gerzmava has a rich, fulsome voice and she was originally scheduled to sing all the women's parts. She has the traditional opera singer's robust figure, and this made it hard for her to fit in with the mostly slim cast.

Hibla Gerzmaza as Antonia, the doomed soprano
The role of the mechanical doll, Olympia, with all its coloratura trills, is especially challenging. The soprano Erin Morley managed elaborately ornamental singing, and some stratospheric high notes, while imitating a doll's marionette-like movements. The gag was that the doll would run-down sometimes and have to be re-wound with a giant key. With great control, Morley sang flat notes as she ran down, and as she was wound up again, she quickly attained dizzying melodic heights. Her performance brought down the house.

Erin Morley as a singing mechanical doll
The treacherous courtesan, Giulietta, was sung by Christine Rice. Both her voice and her manner were suitably voluptuous. 

Vittorio Grigolo with Christine Rice, as Giulietta,
the deceitful courtesan
The Met is in love with its huge chorus and generally shoehorns the whole bunch onto the stage for a couple of big numbers, in this case, the drinking songs and some comedy routines. They sounded great as always. 

The phantasmagorical production seemed overdone to me. Director Bartlett Sher loaded it with jumbled imagery and overly busy fantasies. For instance, there are waiters wearing bowler hats, reminiscent of surreal paintings by Magritte, while some of the drinkers wear silk jackets with very long tails projecting on hoops, in some reference to the French court of the 18th century. Most remarkable is a group of nearly naked dancers that turns up to wave their legs around provocatively now and then, just to keep the men awake.

Some of the scantily clad dancers
Hoffman told all these stories to pass the time while waiting for the diva Stella to arrive after her performance. By the time she gets there, he is sloppy drunk, so she goes off with his rival. Hoffmann's muse urges him to transform his painful experiences into art. Instead he does a comedy routine for the entertainment of his drunken buddies. That seems plausible.

The Met is running an encore at your local cinema Wednesday, 2-4-15.