Met Opera’s “Iolanta”/“Bluebeard” double feature: Iffy pairing, superb singing

Sat Jan 26, 2019 at 5:00 pm
Gerald Finley and Angela Denoke in "Bluebeard's Castle" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Gerald Finley and Angela Denoke in “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

There are two logical ways to go in producing a double-bill: either strive for aesthetic continuity between two similar items; or go for balance, cutting the sweet on one side with savor on the other.

Whichever side you come down on, trying to have it both ways seems like the worst of all options, yet that’s exactly what the Met’s 2015 double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, which opened for a three-week revival on Thursday, ends up doing: It pairs two pieces of wildly different temperament and shoe-horns them into the same dramatic vision.

The staging of Iolanta is a case of overcompensation: Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest wrote the libretto for the opera, and the result is a thin feel-good story that barely touches the surface of its own emotional potential. Producer-director Mariusz Treliński tries to grapple with the weakness of the libretto by weighing it down with far more darkness than it can bear. Instead of the garden paradise described by the other characters, here the blind Iolanta is shut away in a cage-like cabin deep in a gnarled old forest, mocked by the ladies who attend on her.

Sonya Yoncheva crafted a moving portrayal nonetheless; she is an actress of such sensitivity that she was able to invest her character with more emotion than she seems to have on the page. It was heartbreaking to see how keenly she yearned for the affection of Vaudémont after having been isolated for her entire life. Her velvety soprano was in excellent form in Friday’s performance, blooming as she climbed into her upper range.

Filling in for Matthew Polenzani, who withdrew due to illness, tenor Alexey Dolgov was about as fine a same-day replacement as anyone could ask for. He gave an energetic portrayal of the dashing Count Vaudémont, overflowing with passion in his sudden love for Iolanta. The ringing brightness of his voice and his natural, idiomatic Russian style fit the role perfectly.

Vitalij Kowaljow offered a bristling, powerful bass as Iolanta’s father, King René. There was an earnestness in the care he showed for his daughter, yet a desire to create a link between Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle leads him to appropriate several incongruously menacing gestures from the latter’s title villain. Alexey Markov brought his usual supple baritone and brash energy as Vaudémont’s friend Duke Robert, and Elchin Azizov gave a warm portrayal of the doctor Ibn-Hakia.

If Iolanta as the Tchaikovskys wrote it suffers for engaging only superficially with its emotional core, Bluebeard’s Castle could not be a starker contrast — a deep dive into psychological terror. Bartók’s 1918 opera is a harrowing experience, taking the dark fairy tale of a count who murders his wives and turning it into an intense drama for two. 

Here we see the benefit of Treliński’s willingness to delve into darkness. His Bluebeard is gripping, horrifying, building dread in the viewer through the vividness of his staging. Striking lighting effects and projections offer creative solutions to create the illusion of movement throughout the castle, and each room emphasizes its own psychological impact with theatrical gestures that could have come out of a horror film.

Angela Denoke, who had not appeared at the Met since her debut run as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier back in 2005, was brilliant as Judith, Bluebeard’s latest victim. She brings a penetrating soprano to the role, hard on its edges, but firm, with no hint of weariness. Her presence on stage is likewise powerful: there is a subtle allure to her portrayal early on, but she projects a powerful energy as she becomes more and more agitated by the terrors she encounters on her journey through her new husband’s castle.

Gerald Finley is earning a reputation for extraordinary versatility: his warm, richly layered bass-baritone is a treat to listen to in more lyrical roles, yet here his crisp, precise singing made him a terrifying Bluebeard. His demeanor is cold, casting the character as straightforwardly cruel, but his bewitching resonance gives him a dark charisma.

This was an impressive company debut for conductor Henrik Nánási, who led both operas with tremendous skill. Iolanta was richly crafted, but not overstuffed, giving the beautiful contours of the music space breathe. His reading of Bluebeard was stunningly lucid; it’s tempting to let this thorny piece dissolve into a general murk, but Nánási’s precision brought out the score’s sharp edges and gave it unsettling dramatic power.

Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle run through February 14 at the Metropolitan Opera. In the final performance, Lucas Meachem appears as Robert, with Alexander Roslavets as King René.; 212-362-6000.

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