MYSTERY MURDER MADNESS for Mother’s Day with Robert Lepage’s Bluebeard / Erwartung

Director Robert Lepage (Canadian Press photo)

When the advertising screams out “MYSTERY MURDER MADNESS” you know it’s going to be a dark afternoon at the Four Seasons Centre even if it’s Mother’s Day.  But Dr Freud would approve the use of upper case.

The operas are Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schonberg’s Erwartung.  Robert Lepage first directed these two short works (with designs from Michael Levine) for the Canadian Opera Company back in the early 1990s at the O’Keefe Centre,  where it was revived at least twice since that time.  This week marks the first time that these landmark productions have been staged in the intimate confines of the Four Seasons Centre.

They’re a matched set, complementary opposites if you will.

  • Both concern a troubled individual, one of each gender
  • Bluebeard comes from the outside in, as a woman interrogates her new husband about his past, while Erwartung starts on the inside, subjectivities writ large and acted out by doubles and acrobats
  • One could be seen as symbolist while the other is expressionist
  • Both show human relationships as a kind of battleground, and yes there’s lots of blood

I remember loving this in the old hall because it worked from any vantage point, distant or close-up.  Lepage & Levine seemed to have understood the weaknesses of the big barn where the COC used to play, creating a series of powerful images to match the works.   In the smaller hall?  It’s a mixed blessing.  While you’d expect it simply to be more intense up close that’s not always the case.  In the old space our inevitably distant vantage made everything universal & symbolic, images that in close proximity become fascinating yet problematic.  The fellow beside me giggled through much of Erwartung, because we were close enough to be able to see how it was done. While it’s mostly marvelous you don’t always get magic.  When Bluebeard stares at his castle in the distance both at the beginning and end of the opera, an effect that mesmerized me in the old space, this time alas it reminded me of the 36” Stonehenge in This is Spinal Tap.  I guess i was too close, which meant I was able to see everything clearly that previously was dim and dream-like.

Lepage is still very much the focus –no matter how you respond to his images and direction—in a show that employs so many clever effects to tell the stories.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen these shows and they haven’t lost their lustre, still as meaningful as ever, or as Lepage says in his program note

Today Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung still feel pertinent both in their  form and content as Bluebeard’s dominion of blood withers away and Erwartung’s  new way of understanding the world is emerging.

Even so I was inclined to think of Johannes Debus as the real star.  The pace of the Bartok was quite spirited, building relentlessly through the music associated with doors four, five and six, gorgeous sound as overpowering as the images we were seeing.  Curious?  you should investigate the opera, (if not actually coming to see this production) where Bluebeard’s new wife Judith demands to see what’s behind each of seven doors, discovering more than she bargained for.  With the opening of each door we’re in a new sound-world, although there are resemblances between a few, especially once Judith starts noticing that the treasures inside are tainted.

Debus’ first downbeat to begin Erwartung lands at the precise instant that the psychiatrist puts pen to paper.  Where Bluebeard is largely in a symbolist style, Erwartung is expressionist.  Bluebeard and his wife have a mythic encounter, two figures singing at one another, while the mysteries behind each locked door are never actually seen by the audience –until the last door opens that is—except via the suggestive orchestral greek chorus. For Erwartung in contrast, the pathology of the woman onstage is externalized.  Her obsessions materialize on the stage, sometimes in the form of naked bodies, sometimes at odd angles on walls.  This is some of the same stage-craft we’ve seen from Lepage more recently in Needles and Opium, where acrobatic performance techniques usually associated with circus (and incidentally, getting Lepage all sorts of condescension from those unwilling to take him seriously) become part of a new expressive vocabulary.

(l-r) Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist, Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Noam Markus as the Lover in the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung, 2015. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

(l-r) Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist, Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Noam Markus as the Lover in the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung, 2015. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

It’s startling to realize how long ago Lepage first came to the COC, to take stock of the actual passage of time.  Generations of singers have come and gone at the COC.  Russell Braun (who’s starred in several productions recently) is the son of Victor Braun, one of the previous Bluebeards for the COC.  John Relyea, another second generation star and son of longtime COC stalwart Gary Relyea, is the powerful Bluebeard in the new production and the face on the posters.  Relyea also starred as Mephistopheles in Lepage’s Damnation de Faust, his first production at the Metropolitan Opera.   Ekaterina Gubanova was a great match for Relyea as Bluebeard’s wife Judith, enacting the cautionary tale of the curious wife asking one too many questions about her husband.

Krisztina Szabó was The Woman in Erwartung, a most difficult role to sing even without the additional phantasmagoria from Lepage.   In this production the slightest implications of the text are actualized all around The Woman.  We watch someone tiptoe along the dividing line between subjective and objective, pulled in several directions by what’s going on around her, a tension that’s especially magical.  Szabó gives one of the strongest performances of any COC season, by turns raving and dangerous, or vulnerable and even child-like. In short she’s unforgettable.

So  while it probably wasn’t the ideal outing for your aged mom, the Lepage double bill is still edgy more than 20 years later.  It’s a perfect first opera for a young person, especially one who doesn’t believe the form can be cool.  Take them to see Erwartung and Bluebeard and watch them change their mind about opera.

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