I saw this double bill at the Met with my dear friend Frank and our friend Leonore on 2/18. This was a new production, directed by Mariusz Trelinski, in his Met debut. I’d never heard either work before.
*Iolanta* is a one-act opera by Tchaikovsky. This is the first time it’s been done at the Met. The production features two big stars, soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Piotr Beczala. Many operas feature young women in repressed, sheltered circumstances, but this one takes the cake: it’s a fairy tale about a princess who is blind and her father structures her life in a way where she doesn’t KNOW that she’s blind. How creepy is that. The music is beyond belief - - Tchaikovsky writes the most overtly emotional music, it’s thrilling. And gorgeous writing for the singers. There was an ensemble near the end of the piece that blew me away - - it’s scored for everyone in the cast, and the way that he handled all the different elements (the solo singers, the chorus, the melody, the shifts in harmony, the orchestration) was damned impressive. Well-crafted music at its peak.
Alexei Tanovitski played the king, the princess’s father - - some of the least attractive singing I’ve ever heard on the Met stage. Hooded and vinegary. Maxim Aniskin played the tenor’s best friend, and for a minute I was afraid that he’d overshadow the tenor. Aniskin has a sweet voice, not terribly impressive, but sang his aria so beautifully, it was the first time in the show that the audience had a chance to applaud. His character walked offstage and then the tenor had his own aria, which was a hundred times more transporting than the previous aria. I’ve heard Beczala three or four times before, and he is always a wonder, but I’ve never heard him sing more beautifully. He reminded me of Nicolai Gedda, the great tenor from the 50s and 60s (and 70s and 80s, and a bit in the 90s). There is no higher praise for a lyric tenor.
Anna Netrebko was the star of the show - - that’s what you hire her for, and boy, does she deliver. I first heard her at the Beverly Sills tribute in 2007. She sang Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” and I wondered if I had ever heard a more beautiful voice. This is what I wrote about her *Anna Bolena* in 2011:
“Talk about vocal glamour, she has GOT it. Ravishing beautiful voice, with a distinctive dark color, and rock solid high notes, which she sings either bright and piercing or lush and shimmering…. Plus she has a marvelous effortless charisma onstage, what the Italians and other opera nuts call grandezza. She’s only forty, I’ll be following her closely to see what happens with her. She could have many great years ahead of her, she could be still approaching her prime.”
She’s had an interesting career: she started singing ingénue roles (Susanna, Musetta, Gilda, Juliette, Lucia), then marked out new territory by singing *La Traviata* in Salzburg in the famous “red dress” production, which led to fuller lyric roles (Manon, Mimi, Donna Anna), culminating in Anna Bolena. Her voice has always had a dark color, but it’s gotten darker and richer over the years, without any loss of height in the voice (though she’s not doing the high, light roles she did early in her career). She reached another pivot point this year by singing Lady Macbeth, and was truly stunning in the role. Her voice is no longer appropriate for romantic young woman parts, which she says is just fine with her. She sang her first Tatyanas recently, which were a revelation - - her singing takes on a much broader range of colors in her native Russian. I’d love to hear her do more of that, I’m already saying my prayers that she’ll do *Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk*, she would be the ultimate in that role. She has Norma in her future, which will be exciting. There’s also talk of her playing Elsa in *Lohengrin* - - she’s never done a role in German, and it would mean some work on her part, but her voice would be so delicious in that music. I’d be even more interested to hear her as Ortrud in that opera, the villainess (a close relative of Lady Macbeth).
*Bluebeard’s Castle* is an opera by Béla Bartók, it had been done at the Met twice before but this was a new production, paired with *Iolanta*. The music was fascinating, and the singing was first rate. There are just two characters, Bluebeard and his new wife, Judith. They were sung by bass Mikhail Petrenko and mezzo Michaela Martens. Petrenko was marvelous, he wrung every bit of pathos and beauty out of a role that’s purposely written in a rather blank way. Martens has a more showy part and sang it beautifully. I heard her as Mrs. Klinghoffer this fall, she was great in that part and even better in this one.
The problem with *Bluebeard* was the production. The production of *Iolanta* had its wonky bits, but it didn’t get in the way. I’m making this the first rule in directing something for the stage: do not get in the way. Be wacky if you must, but do it in a thoughtful way. The wackiness has to make sense, it has to bring something to the story, or at least not detract from it.
The director’s worst offense was adding pauses. The opera is about Bluebeard showing his new wife through his castle - - seven times he comes to a door, she asks that it be opened, and he opens it. Trelinski inserted a pause at each of these moments. A curtain came down, a film was projected onto the curtain showing rocks or snow or whatever slowly falling, and you heard a door creaking or other ominous sound effects. Each time I was completely removed from the opera and it was a struggle to be drawn back in. Clearly Trelinski does not trust the material - - hello, Bartók knew what he was doing! It was maddening.