Getting to know you

Getting to know you

Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung, directed by Robert Lepage, revival director Francois Racine, conductor Johannes Debus. A Canadian Opera Company production, the 2015 revival.

Erwartung-Photo by Michael CooperAfter twenty-odd years, this production still got it.

It helps, of course, that the COC orchestra under Johannes Debus was in top form last night. (A draggy orchestra can drag this sombre two-acter down.) Bartok’s music was clear, precisely shaped and so alive that there were moments where you could detect its inner dance. I have never heard the Bluebeard played so…full-bodied. And while it’s easy to spot the influence of Debussy in the score, the other often-cited influence, Bartok’s research into folk, wasn’t so easy to detect for me until now. As Bluebeard in his final monologue lists the wives and their respective domains, the music despite its complexity acquires a ballad-like quality, and is touching in a very familiar way.

The images contained in the score are drawn out attentively. Music is called upon to depict what’s behind each door, and the creep of the blood on to the scenery. Lots of glorious there: sparkling treasures, the murmur of water, large vistas, a secret garden, a torture chamber all get a different palette. The minor seconds and the dissonance come cutting in. It’s a tremendously dramatic score.

Schoenberg’s Ewartung, too, kept me engaged and listening, for those quick-silver changes of emotion, and the moments of poetry in unexpected places. Whereas Bluebeard too decades later is an okay staging, the Erwartung is more than okay, it’s remarkable. The music and the visual field merge extremely well and in ways that are still inventive and original to this day. Its symbolism is occasionally heavy-handed (the straitjacket!) and the narrative it gives to The Woman extremely specific (she killed her lover, whom she caught in flagrante with another woman), but even so—its eerie atmosphere, the smart use of the Traumwerk (body parts appear out of unexpected places or merge with inanimate objects, what’s up turns sideways, what’s down turns up, a corpse might have been a branch all along) and the way it weds the visual with the aural remain outstanding.

Krisztina Szabo’s Woman was expressive, shifty, cinematic, and always vocally solid. The two singers of Bluebeard did not disappoint either: John Relyea found a perfect tone for Bluebeard. Of a dark voice and an even darker demeanour, his Bluebeard is more desperate and anguished than fairytale evil. He is recognizable, as are his emotional states. Ekaterina Gubanova was a surprisingly tough, even fierce Judith. With a strong Judith, who demands, scolds, mistrusts and is obsessively set on her own path we get a very different couple and the opera becomes a wrestling match between two fantasies, rather than the gradual subordination and punishment of Judith. While Bluebeard begs her to kiss him, care for him and leave parts of him in shade, she desires the total transparency, archaeological, emotional, financial, whatever there is, she wants it scrutinized. ‘Are you not afraid’ is a recurring question, but Judith, admirably, is not, and Gubanova makes an excellent case for her. Is she a figure of the Enlightenment set against feudal rigidities, or a misguided bride determined to save, fix, liberate and complete (only those four) her beloved? Gubanova will have you guessing—and leave *that* door open for you.

Photo by Michael Cooper. More good photos here.

Bluebeard/Erwartung returns May 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 23.

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