At first thought, the heroines of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle wouldn't seem to have a lot in common. But as the Metropolitan Opera's snow-delayed opening of those two seemingly disparate one-acts showed, both are simply looking for love in a couple of very unlikely places, especially in the Bartok.
With Anna Netrebko singing the title role in Iolanta, and Nadja Michael as Judith in Bluebeard's Castle, this unlikely double-bill turns into a captivating study of obsession that is as thrilling and chilling as any fairy tale or horror story, one ending happily and the other not so much.
The Met will make this bold pairing of romance and dark passion available for audiences around the world when it simulcasts the Feb. 14 matinee performance as a sort of Valentine's Day special to more than 2,000 theaters in 69 countries.
The staging of both operas together is the brainchild of Mariusz Trelinski, the artistic director of the Polish National Opera, in his directorial debut with the Met. Iolanta, Tchaikovsky's last opera, also is a Metropolitan premiere, though its original opening night was canceled because of a snowstorm.
The snow also presumably delayed a protest that came at the end of "Iolanta" when someone from the audience leapt onstage as the singers were taking their curtain calls and held up a poster that included photos of Hitler and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Netrebko and Valery Gergiev, the Russian conductor for the evening, have both publicly voiced support for Putin's policies in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Both the Russian soprano and conductor have been targets of gay-rights protestors in the past.
Iolanta, which Tchaikovsky wrote shortly after his return from New York and the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891, just two years before his death, is the story of a blind girl who has been hidden away in a forest by her father, King Rene, under the care of a woodsman and his wife in the hope that she will never even learn that she is blind. He is especially concerned that Robert, a duke to whom Iolanta was promised when she was a child, not find out about her affliction.
A Moorish physician visits Iolanta and predicts she can see if she will recognize she is blind and wants to be cured. When Robert and his friend Vaudemont wander into the woods and discover Iolanta's cabin, Vaudemont falls in love with her while Robert, unaware this is his betrothed, declares his love for another.
From the opening scene, Iolanta sings that all she wants is to be loved, first to the servants who wait on her and laugh at her behind her back. When she meets Vaudemont, she is willing to risk everything for him.
Netrebko is radiant as Iolanta. Vocally she is in top form and her opening aria yearning for friendship and love is touching. The Polish tenor Piotr Beczala soars as Vaudemont, at once full of passion yet tender in his wooing of Iolanta, and his love duet with Netrebko is a highlight of the evening. The Ukainian bass Ilya Bannik delivers a fine performance as King Rene in his Met debut.
In making the case for pairing these two operas, Trelinski and his set designer Boris Kudlicka use several images in each opera. A forest of trees, their roots exposed, hang from the flies for both Iolanta's cabin and Bluebeard's castle, for example. Video projections, including deer being hunted down and killed in Iolanta, are used in both operas, and antlers are mounted on the walls of both Iolanta's forest cabin and in one room of Bluebeard's castle.
Sound effects, including creaking doors in Bluebeard's Castle reminiscent of a horror ride at an amusement park, create an ominous atmosphere. And a pair of car headlights that appear from the back of the stage in a rainstorm, carrying Judith to the castle, could come straight out of a Raymond Chandler movie.
The story of Bluebeard's Castle is a familiar one, and as Judith's obsessive love drives her to open one locked room after another, the contents of each covered with blood, the stakes keep piling higher and higher until she reaches the seventh and final door. Needless to say there is no new car behind it. It's sort of 50 Shades of Grey in the Hungarian countryside.
Michael is a portrait of increasing fear as she goes from one room to the next, each more horrific than the previous. She navigates the vocal range with facility and is convincing in Judith's unstoppable desire to know all the secrets in the castle. Mikhail Petrenko is really scary as Bluebeard and sings the role with great confidence.