By Colin Eatock
TORONTO – The Canadian Opera Company and its widely admired, double-bill production of Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung have shaped each other for more than two decades. It was in the early 1990s that the COC commissioned the production from a pair of rising stars on Canada’s theatrical scene: director Robert Lepage and designer Michael Levine. (In Lepage’s case, it was his debut as an opera director.) What the pair created changed the company.
Bluebeard/Erwartung was first seen in 1993 at Toronto’s Hummingbird Centre (the theater the COC used before its new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts was built), astonishing audiences and garnering rave reviews. The production was bold, vivid, and direct, yet also probingly insightful. And the emphasis was on innovative direction, design, and stagecraft – in short, on opera as theater.
The COC then took the double bill to the Edinburgh International Festival, where it was voted the best theatrical production of the year. Subsequent tours brought the production to New York (the Brooklyn Academy of Music), and to Hong Kong and Melbourne, Australia. As well, the COC remounted the show for Toronto audiences in 2001.
For the COC, Bluebeard/Erwartung has become almost a repertory item, almost like La Traviata or The Magic Flute. That’s a good thing, since the current revival (May 6 – 23) in Toronto is confident and solid – thanks especially to the COC Orchestra, which could probably play these two scores blindfolded by now. Yet at the same time, the staging has retained its fresh and daring frisson. This production has aged well – or perhaps it’s better to say that it hasn’t aged at all.
Of course, every iteration of the double bill has had its own unique characteristics. Lepage and Levine have tinkered with it over the years – especially with Erwartung, adding some scrim projections. Also, singers and conductors have changed.
This time around, in Bluebeard’s Castle, Canadian bass John Relyea is cast as Duke Bluebeard opposite Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith. In Erwartung, the Woman is sung by Canadian mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó. The conductor is COC music director Johannes Debus.
Under Debus, the May 6 opening night was musically and dramatically unified. Both on the stage and in the pit, performances were detailed and nuanced, yet also infused with an overarching sense of phrasing and structure. Relyea sang with a rich, strong voice, effectively portraying a powerful yet deeply conflicted man. Gubanova was a lush and full-voiced Judith, bringing flashes of brightness to Bluebeard’s dark world.
And his world is very dark. Lighting designer Robert Thomson created a blackened, shadowy interior, punctuated by beams of light projected through the seven keyholes of Bluebeard’s chambers. As each door is opened, there is a flood of color, reflecting the contents of the room. Especially dramatic is door number five, opening onto a swirling vista of Bluebeard’s empire. (At this moment, Debus drew a swell of Straussian voluptuousness from his orchestra.) The lake of tears, behind the sixth door, covers the stage with water. And when the seventh door is opened, Bluebeard’s three previous wives emerge from water in blood-red dresses.
Bluebeard’s Castle has enough of a plot for a director to stage it according to its unfolding narrative. But the same can’t be said for Erwartung: any staging of this work will, of necessity, be an act of invention. Lepage’s response to the blank slate Schoenberg offered him was to invent several non-singing characters, bringing context to the piece. A white-coated psychiatrist who quietly takes notes implicitly locates this Erwartung in an asylum. And as the straitjacketed Woman delivers her incoherent monologue, pantomime versions of herself and her lover appear, acting out a tryst in slow motion.
As the Woman, Szabó brought an agitated, dramatic edge to her coolly accurate mezzo voice. Working closely with Debus, her performance was a fragmented outpouring, seemingly spontaneous in its sudden shifts in tempo, dynamics, and articulation. Szabó was utterly committed and entirely convincing – and the extended ovation she received was well earned.
Since Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung were first seen in Toronto, both Robert Lepage and Michael Levine have gone on to major international careers. It’s likely that their subsequent triumphs would have happened anyway. But this production propelled them down the road that has led to the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, and many other major opera houses. Good for them – and good for the COC.
Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould.