Monday, February 16, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "What's Love Got To Do with It?" (on Tchiakovsky's Iolanta and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle)


what’s love got to do with it?
by Douglas Messerli

Modest Tchaikovsky (libretto, based on a play by Henrik Hertz), Pyrotr Tchaikovsky (composer) Iolanta and  Béla Balázs (libretto, based on a story by Charles Perreault), Béla Bartók (music) Bluebeard’s Castle / performed by the Metropolitan Opera, HD live broadcast, performed on February 14, 2015

I originally intended, before actually viewing the two opera presented in the MET’s HD Valentine’s Day broadcast, to discuss these works separately, adding my remarks about the Bartok opera to those I had already made above on the Los Angeles Opera production, and writing about the Tchaikovsky work, never before performed on the Metropolitan Opera stage, within another context. After seeing the pair of short operas, directed by Mariusz Treliński, it became apparent that to do so would be to ignore the carefully constructed and, at times, revelatory links between the two works.
     Of course, there is absolutely no reason to imagine that these two very different pieces, written only 20 years apart, need have anything to do with one another, Iolanta representing clearly a work of 19th century that romanticizes love and seeks for its characters’ purification through their orientation to the light, “the pearl” of God’s gift to mankind. Light is not just God’s first creation, but representative of moral value and comprehension in the Tchaikovsky work.

     Indeed this work struggles with a pre-modernist dilemma: how is someone without the knowledge of light and all that it represents—good, beauty, love, wisdom—able to comprehend what is missing from their life? Importantly, the opera asks questions that Blake had previously posed: can innocence be good, does lack of knowledge allow for salvation, or, as Pope Francis recently pondered, can an animal be forgiven and granted eternal life? For in this opera, which the director has linked up intimately with animal life, represents the blind Iolanta (Anna Netrebko) locked up, not in a beautifully enchanted cottage—as the original libretto would have it—but in a hunting cabin, replete with the trophies of deer antlers posted across its walls. Deers are seen roaming about the place, are shot, and their blood is drained all during the course of short performance.
     In Treliński’s version, the young girl’s father, King René (Ilya Bannik) is not just a misguided parent, attempting to protect his beloved daughter from a truth which may, he fears, transform her joyful demeanor into a world of fear and terror, but is a dictatorial figure who pretends wisdom while denying even the concept of it—no one with access to girl  is allowed to mention light and vision. Yet at opera’s start, Iolanta has come of age enough to perceive that something is missing from her life, and begins to suffer even though she cannot yet comprehend why she might have any right to do so, particularly since she is lovingly cared from by servants day and night. Eyes, accordingly, have no purpose but for tears, and tears, alas, have become to appear in her eyes without cause. What we begin to perceive is that, even in the closed world in which she has been sheltered, the young blind girl is beginning to comprehend that something is amiss. How can her nurse, for example, know that she is crying without touching her eyes, to spot her fever without putting her hands to her forehead?
     The opera’s libretto, however, does hint, moreover, that René’s intentions may not all be a as loving as they are manipulative. Why will he not even reveal that he is the king or that Iolanta has been promised in marriage to Duke Robert (Aleksei Markov)? This beautiful young maiden locked away in her enchanted garden, after all, is not so very different from the forested animals the King keeps on his property to hunt them down and destroy them. And not only is René mistaken in his notions of filial protection, but he has not bothered to discover whether or not the young man to whom she is promised is a suitable husband for her. In fact, Robert, even knowing of the vow to which he has been committed, has been, so to speak, actively playing the field, and has fallen in love with another woman, Mathilda.
      Fortunately, his close companion, Vaudémont (Piotr Beczala) has not yet found the perfect woman he is seeking, and which, almost as soon as he has sung of his desires, he discovers in the visage of Iolanta. But even suddenly witnessing everything for which he has been seeking, also reveals his own failures: for him everything is based on sight. Accordingly, just as he begins to reveal to the unknowing girl the importance of light and all that it represents, she, in incomprehension of words, begins to reveal to him that love, wisdom, and knowledge can (and must) be known even in the darkness. 
     Had Tchaikovsky been a 20th-century composer, he surely would have sought out that second truth more thoroughly, faced as Bartók would soon be, with the bleakness of the already discordant future. But Tchiakovsky and his story, being of another time, pursues instead how to bring the light to his heroine’s life so that she, too, can be blessed just as has her loving knight. 
    Today, the ridiculousness of the magical cure by the Arab doctor Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Arizov) is apparent, with its mysterious “backstage” melodramatics which, we are told, the young girl bravely endures as she is forced to wear a blindfold to cover eyes that cannot see the light. Chalk it all up to a dramatic revelation of the fact that she is cured, and is now suddenly able, because she has willed it, to share in God’s great and glorious gift, all somewhat campily represented in this opera’s conclusion through the project of white rays emanating in an art- deco-like pattern behind the carefully arranged gathering, for the work’s conclusion, of the chorus and leads.

     Hinting that the happy girl of the first opera, in entering the new century, is drawn to return to the world of her father’s dark domination—or, one might almost argue, as if young Countess of Rossini’s Barber of Seville were to sudden awake in the bed of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figuro—Judith (Nadja Michael) of Bluebeard’s Castle inexplicably leaves her happy home of light to follow the Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) into his nightmare castle. Like Vaudémont of the Tchiakovsky opera, Judith hopes to help Bluebeard—by opening the doors to all his rooms and revealing their secrets—to see the light and, in that process, discover just what they meant for Iolanta: good, beauty, love and wisdom. Treliński, in attempting to link these works, brings in, quite naturally, elements of the first work, the antlered deer heads, the roots of trees, flowers, etc into the second opera as Judith tries to entice Bluebeard to perceive (perhaps with a bit tweaking of the translation) just what Modest Tachiakovsky described as “the pearl” of God’s gift to mankind. And, in this sense, by performing these works together, they function to slightly shimmer off of one another, giving each work an intensity of meaning that alone they might not reveal. What also became clear by bringing these works together, was how informed they both were by eastern European thought, along with its inherent appositions of evil and good, meaninglessness and revelation.

    Yet, as my companion Howard pointed out, too often this can lead to “connect the lines” sort of sketch that easily collapses with any careful thought. For Judith is not and never could have been as innocent as Iolanta, even as a child. She is attracted to Bluebeard and his dark world, not because she herself once shared it, but because she cannot truly believe in his rumored evil. A bit like the Biblical Judith, Bartók’s figure might even imagine herself as being able, in the end, to take charge of the situation by beheading her Holofernes when he attempts to rape her in her bath. But she cannot act in time, needing still to prove her would-be lover innocent, refusing to believe the truth she already knows but cannot will herself to believe.
     In fact, even more so than when I  saw the great Bartók opera late last year, I could not help but comprehend the work, this time around, as a horrifying, nightmare prediction of World War I and the fascist interventions of the rest of the 20th century. Everything that Bluebeard reveals to Judith will be realized in the century ahead, as the idealist’s life—the dreamer in the moonlight—will be the required sacrificed of mankind. 
     What these operas do ultimately reveal by their pairing is that while the first may represent a dream of love, the second has actually very little to do with love, but is a tale of the twisted human attraction to the perverse, concerning the awful hypnotic draw of the human species to the heart of darkness.

Los Angeles, February 16, 2015

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