John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard and Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas
The Canadian Opera Company is wrapping up its current season with a triumphal revival of Robert Lepage’s 1993 productions of Béla Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung.
Lepage, Set and Costume Designer Michael Levine and Lighting Designer Robert Thomson give both operas dark, forbidding, mysterious and frightful atmospheres. Indeed the world they create is surreal, psychotic and incomprehensible.
Bass John Relyea is an impressive and imposing Bluebeard. Dressed in a buttoned-up officer’s uniform, he looks like an aristocratic gentleman. Relyea has a deep, rolling voice that is expressive and threatening but shows tenderness as well. He has a house full of horrors but he keeps asking Judith if she is afraid. The opera leads inevitably towards the sixth and seventh doors that will seal her fate as the wife of the Duke. Relyea gives an impressive performance vocally and looks like a self-possessed, mysterious, aristocrat who hides much evil and many secrets behind a civil façade.
Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova is a strikingly blonde Judith who insists that she is not afraid of the Duke and that she loves him. Her driving curiosity pushes her to the final door of the castle where she will find her position in the Duke’s universe.
Gubanova showed great emotional intensity as she moved from one door to the next. Her voice was not always as strong as one would have liked, but she gave a signature performance in a tough role.
Lepage sets Bluebeard’s Castle in early twentieth century Europe. For both operas the stage is set in a gold frame and darkness dominates every scene. The seven doors of Bluebeard’s castle are shown as silhouettes of brightly lit keyholes on both sides of the stage. A concrete wall dominates the right side of the stage and Judith opens the doors on the left side.
We see mostly Judith’s reaction to what lies behind the doors except when she opens the fifth door and we see a vista of the Duke’s empire projected in a kaleidoscope of colours.
Blood is a central image in the opera but Lepage does not dwell on it. There is blood on Judith’s wedding dress and there are projected images of blood but darkness remains the overriding impression.
It is a stunningly well-sung, well-conceived and well-produced staging of the opera.
Krisztina Szabó as the Woman. Photo: Michael Cooper
Erwartung (“Expectation”) is a one-act monodrama in which a Woman is searching or expecting a man, her lover. She is searching in the dark with the same concrete wall as in Bluebeard as a main feature of the set.
There is a man in a white coat taking notes for a while and people emerge horizontally from the wall. There is a cot on the stage that looks very much like a hospital bed. The woman is hallucinating or is mentally disturbed. We do not know as she continues her search and finds a man. He is her lover but he apparently has a mistress.
Schoenberg wrote some extraordinarily dramatic music for this opera that keeps you enthralled for the half hour that it lasts.
Mezzo soprano Kristina Szabo goes through all the emotional permutations that the Woman suffers with powerful singing and acting. This is opera in a different dimension.
The two operas take two hours to perform including an intermission. They have many points in common and Lepage’s production capitalizes on them to give us a unified whole of two different works.
The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus produces outstanding performances of Bartok’s and Schoenberg’s complex music.
The result is a great night at the opera.
Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartok and Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg opened on May 6 and will be performed seven times until May 23, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca