By Daniel Hathaway
CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Orchestra’s newest collaboration with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet brought a pair of dark, suspenseful stage works by Béla Bartók to Severance Hall on April 7 (with repeat performances through April 10). Nine Joffrey dancers and two fine singers shared the crowded stage with music director Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra for performances of the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin and the one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle that were riveting and chilling and made imaginative use of minimal stage gear and props.
Although the main auditorium of Severance Hall was originally conceived as a space where both staged opera and symphony performances could be held, a reconfiguration of the stage house by George Szell in 1957 and the hall’s complete renovation in 2000 clearly favored orchestral concerts.
That most recent re-do did include an orchestra pit of modest proportions that was put to good use for Zurich Opera’s productions of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas (2009-2011). Since then, Welser-Möst has embarked on bigger projects. Semi-staged productions of Richard Strauss’ Salome and Daphne and Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen called for ensembles of symphonic proportions and inspired clever solutions for bringing orchestra, singers, and sometimes dancers and chorus together onstage.
This time around, the project was complicated by the inclusion of Mandarin — Bartók called it a pantomime — for which dancers needed room to operate. The orchestra pit, raised to stage level and covered with a marley surface, became their real estate. The orchestra occupied the rest of the stage except for a runway along the stage-right wall that gave access to the organ chamber. Its façade pipes removed and its three large apertures swagged with off-white curtains, the space came in handy for the dramatic entrance of the Mandarin in the ballet and for the revealing of Bluebeard’s three wives — in a burst of blinding, white light — when Judith opened the seventh door of the castle.
At the beginning of the evening, a metal and glass cage was in place just behind the conductor’s podium. Three white ropes dangled from the rafters, a pair of industrial-looking light fixtures sat on the floor, and three black chairs were positioned on stage left. As spotlights flashed on and off during the frenetic opening music of Mandarin, the three thugs (dancers Raúl Casasola, Paulo Rodrigues, and Joan Sebastián Zamora) appeared with the Young Woman (Victoria Jaiani), ready to set up their scam to lure unsuspecting men into a lucrative liaison, using the Young Woman in the window as bait.
The shakedowns don’t go well. Neither the Old Man (Miguel Angel Blanco) nor the Shy Man (Temur Suluashvili), the first two to take the bait, turn out to have any money on them. They’re summarily tossed out. Then the Mandarin (Yoshihisa Arai) appears, mysterious, inscrutable, and persistent. Defying two attempts by the thugs to kill him, he escapes from being hanged (a noose suddenly appears in the glass cage), only to die in the arms of the Young Woman, tipped onto the floor at the end of the ballet like a sack of potatoes.
The Joffrey is an energetic, athletic company, and choreographer Yuri Possokhov put the dancers through some demanding paces while giving each character a unique kinetic profile. The Young Woman moved with feline sensuality, later becoming something of a dominatrix over the Mandarin. The Old Man and the Shy Man were unmistakable in their gestures. The Mandarin was unflinchingly self-possessed — and limber: at times he got tossed around like a rag doll. The thugs (who actually looked like nice enough guys) pulled off some thrilling fight scenes, using the three chairs to pin down their prey or to hem them in from all sides.
Bartók’s sensuous music came vividly alive in the hands of Welser-Möst and the orchestra, and its details — down to the final strokes where the Mandarin expires and falls to the floor — were perfectly mirrored by the dancers.
During the intermission, six long, silky banners were flown from the top of the stage house for Bluebeard’s Castle and big, flat-screen monitors in the near-stage boxes were activated so the singers could stay in touch with Welser-Möst.
Bass Mikhail Petrenko, as Bluebeard, spoke the prologue in Hungarian spotlighted in a chair. As his new bride, Judith, soprano Katarina Dalayman was first seen silhouetted behind the stage right banner. And then we were off and running for an hour-long psychological thriller, the operatic equivalent of an Edgar Allen Poe story or an Alfred Hitchcock film.
As Judith successively opened each of Bluebeard’s seven forbidding doors to let light and air into his windowless castle, a banner was pulled to the floor, revealing the scene behind it. Projections on the remaining banners vividly suggested her unnerving discoveries: weapons, jewels, and a garden, all bloodstained, and a white lake full of tears.
The musical high point of the opera, though not its climax, arrives with the unlocking of the fifth door, when Judith holds a high C underpinned by organ and followed by strong, parallel chords. In a way, the energy of the drama goes downhill from that moment, but there’s still much to be revealed, including those three wives behind the seventh door, danced with flowing lyricism by Jaiani, Amanda Assucena, and April Daly.
With his mellifluous, compact voice and regal bearing, Petrenko was the perfect choice for Bluebeard. No less regal, Dalayman sounded a bit distant at the beginning, but her warm, luscious tone soon gained presence and carried well into the audience.
Possokhov again made much out of his modest stage appliances. While the banners were still hanging, he sometimes wrapped the singers in them. Once they came down, they became piles of material that Judith could finger ruminatively, or that Bluebeard could gather up and kick offstage in a rage.
In addition to Alexander V. Nichols’ evocative lighting and projections, the only other coloration this dark-bright opera needed was glowingly supplied by the Cleveland Orchestra. Welser-Möst paced the score with consummate skill. If the balances were sometimes more in favor of the orchestra than the singers, it simply proved there’s a good reason why opera houses put their instrumentalists in pits.
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Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.