Dear friends and readers,
If you needed confirmation, in the filmed interview conducted by Peter Gelb between the two one-act operas of the singer/actors for Bluebeard’s Castle with the production designer of both, Mariusz Trelinski (a iconoclastic courageous film director, like Netrebkvo, a Russian separatist), Trelinski made the brilliancy of the coupling of the two operas plain: these are two phases in the life of one woman, not a particular psychological person, but an archetype.
Trelinksi tries to transform the Tchaikovksy’s opera: Tchaikovsky meant us to see the utterly submissive Iolanthe, as a blind (disabled) mythic figure, whose loving father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik) mistakenly shields her from understanding she is blind, to prevent her rich suitor, the Duke of Burgundy (Aleksei Markov) from knowing about this by imprisoning her, allowing her to come into contact only with a nurse, her husband, a huntsman, and two (sneering) maids. Trelinski juxtaposes this material with Bartok’s legend of Bluebeard, the story of Judith inexplicably (she is given no past, except she has escaped her bethrothed) continually pleading with this cruel, sardonic, and murderous male to allow her deeper into his castle from door to door until she reaches a wood where she finds herself surrounded by haunted, wounded, and dead women and must remain forever herself.
We are supposed to see Iolanta has changed one supposed benign tyrant for another as Judith has exchanged one openly fearful one for another.
Trelinski’s production reveals Tchaikovky’s supposed sentimental romantic piece is a transparently cruel story of a young woman kept helpless and obedient to a tyrannical obsessive father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik).
That Trelinkski meant the pair to be read as feminist mirrors of women’s oppression was obvious: though he was not willing explicitly to say anything concrete, even Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph saw this. As Iolanthe began the stage was turned into a movie-screen as a black universe, with stars, flowers and figures that suggested fragility, at the bottom of which was a lovely faun, which reappeared on the screen until Iolanthe’s father murdered it and it seemed a real fleshy body bleeding to death hunt up upon a nail. There is a long tradition of equating fauns with women (e.g., Marvell’s “Nymph complaining of the death of her faun”).
As Bluebeard opened a similar film screen took over the stage, similarly blackened with fragile petals, stars, small woodland creatures, only instead of a pastoral wood with a what looked like a square shoe box as dwelling, it kept turning into fearful images of elevators, tunnels, prisons, tables where hospital like operations could be performed (Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein used the same medical imagery):
At one point the same shoe box like square appeared but this time tiled like a bathroom (or the NYC subway), with Judith crawling on the ground, kneeling, clutching at the wall, a strong version of Iolanthe’s stumbling about. Netrebko’s outfits, a white slip, and a garish blue day dress were counterparts of Michael’s white slip and acqua blue gown.
Both women had the same white round flowers handed to them by men. Both operas had walls covered with stuffed deer heads. So this is what all those 19th century fairy tales were covering up. At the close of Bluebeard’s Castle, Bluebeard is having sex with a mannequin half-buried in a grave in a landscape that seemed something left over from bombing in a war
I would have liked to conclude the pairing was feminist but alas both operas resisted this imposition strongly. Had the Met opera had the nerve to end Iolanthe before the hero count persuades Iolanthe’s father to yield her up to the doctor, it might have worked for the first opera. But the second half of this play was dedicated to the still popular idea that if you believe yourself into health, have the will say not to be blind, you will be cured. This because a wonderful God has done this to you to show you just how good he is. In return, you of course must worship him abjectly.
As staged, the opera ends in this ludicrous Busby Berkeley spectacle of rays of green light like the spokes of a crown as everyone thanks God profusely — before of an unexpected and added on entry of the Trelinski’s father tyrant in a silent dumb show (so not part of the original script or singing): King Rene comes out and instead of smiling rejoicingly because his daughter’s eyesight has been restored after the hero persuaded her she wanted to see him and has been united to him, and throws out grim looks of anger and resentment.
Bartok’s opera makes more sense if you see it as misogynistic. Judith is endlessly masochistic; she just cannot get enough intense pain; she begs for more keys to open more doors apparently so she can submit and suffer and writhe some more. Bluebeard is her God, teaching her how to experience things physically:
Never mind that study after study has shown that the mashochistic woman who just loves abuse is a myth. The women at the close are just as hauntedly submissive as Judith; Bluebeard who is dressed (appropriate to his music) as an pleasure-loving (he smokes cigarettes, drinks wine) sardonic Citizen Kane type, more insouciantly rakish than murderous.
During the regulation hyped interview (by Joyce DiDonato) Netrebko said she felt for her character, stumbling about helpless and indeed she was poignant; Beczala is less of a phony than many of the singers and he refused to pretend to have psychoanalyzed his part and said what was hard about it was all the high Cs. In the filmed interview with Gelb, Michael seemed aware of the contradiction of claiming a perpetually longing- punishment type as an icon for feminism as she volunteered the interpretation that Judith wanted to see within herself, and what the “the world” is for real behind doors. Gelb (like the Telegraph) seemed a bit nervous at this open explicitness of what the opera might be about, for he immediately cautioned her “not to give away the story.” It was a rare good instance of how spoiler warnings function to stop bringing meanings of story into the openly discussable.
Very unusually for the movie-house audience I have now observed for four years there was little applause at the end of either opera or after some remarkably sung arias, especially those (in my view) of the unfortunate Michael whose acting was stunning; she had to have been exhausted.
I applauded for her but no one else did. The people around me were silent altogether. Were they embarrassed? The audience at the Met applauded now and again for some spectacular singing (it seemed to me) but did not stand up as has become the custom (the audience nowadays seems to do this to congratulate themselves for coming).
I decided to go out of curiosity. When the New York City Metropolitan opera chooses to do this kind of pairing, how they do it is significant. Izzy and I had been complaining all season of how conventional what we saw was, well, here was another instance after The Death of Klinghoffer (however in reality tame the opera is) of courage. It would be easy to make fun. Iolanta just needed to be mainstreamed and all would have been well. Bluebeard needed to stop imitating gangsters from movies and Judith their faux-glamorous beat-up molls. I prefer to take seriously what took itself seriously: these are two productions saturated with unexamined assumptions about disease and women, the first exposing teleological absurdities, the second genuinely mirroring a deep sickness in the images we are surrounded by in popular and high art. Torture came to mind; they were torturous, so appropriate to our political landscape today? I was relieved to escape when they were over.
I wonder what Jim would have thought of it. Had he and Izzy come with me (she didn’t come either) they’d have discussed the music and perhaps the singing. I found nothing thrilling about the 19th century opera and do not wonder it has rarely been performed since it was first paired (and then dropped from) the Nutcracker Suite. As for Bartok’s music, it seemed to me harsh and dissonant. I can’t say I enjoyed anything, perhaps the images of fawns at the opening of the first opera were touching; I was genuinely horrified when what made to seem an apparently real faun was knifed to death and hung and when Bluebeard was having sex with the mannequin.