Sight But No Vision: 'Iolanta' and 'Bluebeard's Castle' at the Met

Double bills are a common phenomenon in the opera world. The most famous two are the pairing of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci and the best pairings of operas offer either a stark contrast between the pieces -- highlighting what makes each piece different and worthy of viewing in a new light -- or complement each other, showing that two works by different composers have similarities through themes or musical styles. The Met's new production of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta paired with Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle didn't do either, and the result was an evening as inert as the snow that blanketed Lincoln Center.

The first offering of the pairing that saw its final performance last night was Iolanta, Tchaikovsky's fairy tale about a blind princess protected from the world. First performed at the Mariinsky in 1892 (Paired with Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet, The Nutcracker), this was the work's first presentation at the Metropolitan Opera. The music is classic -- but extremely predictable --Tchaikovsky and contains some moments of beautiful music punctuated by longer, less-busy sections.

The mostly successful production, transplanted from Europe by Polish director Mariusz Treliński, moves the action to an austere hunting lodge in the woods instead of the colorful garden the piece implies. It begins with a projection (by Bartek Macias and a high point of both productions) of a deer being symbolically pursued and Treliński's production does pose questions to the audience throughout the evening, in addition to those posed by the libretto like "What is color?" By setting the piece in such an uncolorful place juxtaposed with Iolanta's newly awakened desire for sight, it made me think that is ignorance sometimes acceptable? Is it better not bother seeing what we don't know or to want to expand our horizons? Also, what makes a disability? Are there points where Iolanta's emotional faculties are unimpeded by her lack of sight? Certainly. And this adds another layer or dimension to the piece. Unfortunately, this didn't translate into the uncreative blocking and didn't suffice to fill points where the dramaturgy sagged. Boris Kudlička's sets for Iolanta were uninteresting -- a square room with a bed, a table and some chairs -- but they got the job done. Mark Heinz's lights were fantastic and created a variety of different tones on the basic unit set and Marek Adamski's costumes were nothing special.

Vocally, the performance was quite taut. In the title role, Anna Netrebko returned to a part that has served her career well. That said, with the darkening of her vocal color of late, Iolanta may no longer be the best fit for her voice. Netrebko lightened her voice most of the evening with the results sounding good but lacking in her typical massive volume. This was a different singer than the one that let fly as Lady Macbeth a short time ago and the better parts of the performance were those when she sang in her trademark voice -- dark, silky and thrilling. Still, she's a consummate performer. She threw herself into the role and complemented each of her colleagues in their individual scenes in addition to using Modest Tchaikovsky's text to create a clearer understanding of the character.

As her Prince Vaudemont, Piotr Beczala brought his signature illuminating voice and high comfort level onstage. His aria was phrased beautifully including a seamless shift into falsetto for the final phrase. It was a joy to watch him interact with Netrebko and spoke to the high merits of both singers to watch them perform together, especially in their rapturous duet.

Alexei Tanovitski was by far the weakest link of the cast. His gravelly bass sounds like it's coming off the rails. He lacked charisma onstage and his weak acting and idiomatic gestures failed to create a real complex character outside of his normal blocking. He looked and sounded amateurish surrounded by such a talented cast.

Aleksei Markov's brilliant baritone shined as Robert and Elchin Azizov was a convincing enough Moorish Doctor with a well-spun aria. Mzia Nioradze as Marta provided the typical weathered, matronly sound that's become so common to women singing mother-figures in Russian operas, and Matt Boehler was her strong-voiced husband, Bertrand. Katherine Whyte and Cassandra Zoe Velasco complemented each other as a well sung and feisty pair of maids. Pavel Smelkov drew beautiful and sensitive sounds from the top-form Met orchestra, but often lacked the momentum to keep the piece moving forward. The Met chorus was in beautiful voice, further proving that this chorus and orchestra can perform just about everything.

Next was Bartok's 1918 Bluebeard's Castle, performed for the first time at the Met in its original Hungarian. The score is interesting and momentous. It unravels like a string on a spool with dramatic intensity building at each turn. Unfortunately, not much beyond the orchestral merits of the piece showed through. Much of Treliński's production didn't read well from my Family Circle seat. The libretto, by Bela Balasz, is extremely explicit. At the opening of the third door, for example, Judith exclaims, "All your precious gems are blood-stained! Your brightest jewel is blood-stained!" Not only were there no doors, there were no jewels and no blood. Treliński communicated the interactions between a twisted man and his naïve wife, but the actual action of the piece clashed completely with the libretto. Boris Kudlička's sets required long change times during which the action was moved to an elevator that, while an innovative idea at first, was exhausting when done for longer times accompanied by a projection of an elevator descending through a shaft and the sets, frankly, looked cheap and shook when the singers made impact with them. Lights, once again by Mark Heinz, were superb, as were the numerous projections.

Mikhail Petrenko was a vocally adequate Bluebeard, declaiming the lines with half-interest the entire time. Not particularly menacing or dominating, there was no allure to his Bluebeard, making the story seem simply unfeasible instead of making Judith seem like a rational person driven by desires and a perverse fascination with her new husband and his home. It was a Bluebeard only a mother could love.

There are a lot of things one can say about the Judith, Najda Michael. Her voice is not beautiful. In fact, it's nowhere near. She lacks a clear dramatic temperament and doesn't have much sense of how to use phrasing and text to build a character. She is, however, a fearless stage animal. She subscribed to the intense stage movement and choreography of the production, even running over the compound that composed the glass that Bluebeard shattered on the ground several times with bare feet. It looked like it hurt. She cut a glamorous figure in Marek Adamski's costumes and looked like she gave it her all within her limitations, leading me to think that not all is lost for Nadja Michael.

Smelkov gave a restrained reading of the piece with the orchestra, once again, demonstrating exemplary playing.

In respect to any of my hopes for a revival of these productions, I can only echo Iolanta: How can I long for what I cannot understand?