Blood at the Opera: Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung

Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith and John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard in the Canadian Opera Company production of Bluebeard’s Castle, 2015. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, revival director François Racine, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer Robert Thomson. Photo: Michael CooperCanadian Opera Company delivers a powerfully dark two hours of intense psychological warfare with Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, based loosely on Charles Perrault’s French tale, is one of the composer’s earlier works, but it’s quintessentially Bartók in that it draws you directly into the epicenter of his dark, eerie world. Director Robert Lepage visualized this mad, sexual, killer world to perfection.

The opera begins with a darkened stage, the imposing figure of Bluebeard (bass John Relyea) walking statuesquely with his latest wife, Judith (Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova) following behind in her wedding whites. As his deep, affective bass ominously presses her—would she prefer to return to her family, and the largess of her childhood home—one wants her to say, “yes, yes, I should return,” but of course, that wouldn’t make for terribly exciting opera. Instead Judith follows him into his gloomy castle, and insists upon opening all the doors, letting the light in. What she finds is far from light.

The music of Bluebeard is gorgeous and foreboding, and Johannes Debus delivered the beautifully haunting score with characteristic ease. Each note that his orchestra played was expressionistic and evocative throughout. As the castle’s fifth door opened, the orchestra erupted in magnificently large chords that vividly depicts the blinding light that emits from the vast expanses of Bluebeard’s kingdom.

When the final seventh door was opened, and Bluebeard’s former wives rose silently from the gutters of the stage, weighed down so heavily by their blood red dresses and finery, it was one of the most evocatively disturbing scenes I’ve witnessed in opera in recent time.

Lepage’s stage was wonderfully simple, dark, and claustrophobic, made even more efficacious by lighting designer Robert Thomson’s work which was superb. With each door opened, the different plays of light were evocative of the room’s ghastly contents. Always ominous, the lighting worked perfectly to set the dismal mood the audience engages in.

Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist (in background) in the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung, 2015. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, revival director François Racine, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer Robert Thomson. Photo: Michael Cooper Michael Cooper Photographic

Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist (in background)

Arnold Schoenberg’s one-act monodrama Erwartung (Expectation) followed on the heels of Bluebeard, and is absolutely symbiotic to the latter, not just in psychological content, but in the women’s dependence on the men in their lives, regardless of how detrimental they are.

Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo was utter perfection in her delivery of the unhinged, unnamed woman of the opera. She keeps you deeply engaged for the entire 30 minutes as her tale unfolds, and there is more feeling packed into that piece than is in many theatrical works today.

Erwartung begins with the woman in a cheerless hospital room, a male psychiatrist, all clinical, takes notes as she stands tangled up in her straight jacket. Immediately, loaded, heavy words like hysteria, and neurosis fill the mind.

As the woman wanders through the inky darkness of the forest (as much a forest of the mind as it is physical), Szabo’s voice is beautifully, darkly expressive. With each note, she displayed her apprehensive agitated state—frightened, anxious, manic, as she searches for her lover in the tenebrous space. Once again, Debus’ orchestra delivered the dissonance of the rapid meter and tempo changes, showcasing the complexity of the score, and perfectly mirroring the woman’s fractured state-of-mind, and nebulous retelling of her plight.

Noam Markus as the Lover (lying down), Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist in the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung, 2015. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, revival director François Racine, set and costume designer Michael Levine, and lighting designer Robert Thomson. Photo: Michael Cooper Michael Cooper Photographic

Noam Markus as the Lover (lying down), Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist

The set here was simple, engaging and clever—at one point, the psychiatrist and desk sits inverted on the wall, expressive of the disjointed reality of the woman’s mind. As her scythe tears through her lover’s body, we witness her red rage against an unfaithful partner. But what is real in this tangled tale of a mad woman?

At the end of the night, what is clear, is that this Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung will creep through your psyche and remain there for days. Like Judith, we find ourselves simultaneously repulsed and intrigued, but we must see these disturbing tales through to their abysmal ends.

Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung continues through May 23. For more information and tickets visit: coc.ca 

About The Author

Janelle Watkins
Editorial Director

Janelle Watkins is a citizen of the world who has lived both a charmed and stormy life. She has worked as a personal shopper, journalist, has done extensive work in marketing communications, and public relations. These experiences have seen her working alongside prominent leaders from the fashion, culinary, art and media worlds. This bon vivant would like to add some flair to her readers’ lives and loves to get their feedback. On everyday life she sums up, “Live life in your own style, be true to yourself – be distinct.” Favourite place in Toronto: Strolling around the Yonge/Eglinton and Mt. Pleasant Village neighbourhoods with a David’s Tea and two special little someones.

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