There is without a doubt something about opera that lends itself to otherworldliness. The magic of music and stage has, since opera’s inception in the late sixteenth century, often drawn on mythology and folklore for subject matter. The Greek myth of Orpheus and his descent to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, has been retold countless times in operas by Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, and others. The four operas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle involve characters from Norse and Germanic myth, including gods like Odin and Thor and mythical creatures like valkyries, giants, and dwarves. And these are only the best-known examples of fantasy in opera.
The Canadian Opera Company’s 2014-2015 season ends with a speculative work: a double-bill of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, a remount of a COC original that first premiered in the early nineties. Both are early twentieth century operas with similar psychological themes. They complement each other well: Bluebeard, through the discoveries made by Judith, can easily be classified as horror, and the plight of the woman in Erwartung is one of pure terror.
Bartok was a prominent Hungarian composer, musician, and collector of folksongs in the early twentieth century. His contributions to the field of ethnomusicology, particularly in Eastern Europe, were particularly significant, and his love of folk music and tales comes across in many of his compositions. Bluebeard’s Castle comes from a French folktale in which Bluebeard’s young wife finds the bodies of her husband’s former wives locked in his castle.
The COC’s production begins on a dark stage surrounded by a golden frame. Bluebeard enters at the front of the stage, solemn and foreboding, followed by Judith, his new wife. He doesn’t seem like he really wants her there, suggesting she leave and return to the life she had before, but she insists.
The music moves them into the set and the story as Judith enters the dark castle. Its walls weep, but if she’s second-guessing herself it doesn’t show. She asks why it is so cold and sad; she wants to heal Bluebeard, to fix him. He may want the same. They come to seven doors lining a hallway and she requests they be opened to let in the light and the truth. The castle groans in pain at her suggestion; it is almost a character in itself, a part of Bluebeard that needs to be cared for by Judith as much as he does. “Are you afraid?” asks Bluebeard. “No,” Judith replies. Her white dress billows and trails around her like a ghost as she moves across the stage. It becomes steadily more bloodstained with every door she opens.
Bluebeard gradually opens the first three doors. The first burns like a furnace or like hell and the castle bleeds as she looks upon his torture chamber. The second, blaring white light and brass, reveals his armoury, and the third, his treasury, burning like pale fire. But there are bloodstains through these doors and darker secrets still. Perhaps he sees her as a saviour: someone who will bring light into the castle and onto his dark past.
Bartok’s score moves between complex, all-out motion to a single bassoon line throughout; a reflection of the edge the characters stand on as well as the mood of the weeping castle. The fourth door reveals a garden and some of the softest, loveliest music in the opera. Judith has some hope that perhaps it’s not all bloodshed and violence, and picks a flower. The set at this point is really incredible, using a projection on the stage to show the trees and setting a moment of peace. But the illusion is shattered when she picks a flower and finds it covered in blood. “Who has bled to water your garden?” she demands, but he knows she won’t like the answer and keeps quiet.
The fifth door shows his vast kingdom before them, clouds, lakes, and land that will all be for Judith. The music at this point is an amazingly loud brass choir so glorious it made my hair stand on end. In gazing proudly at his realm, Bluebeard seems, for a moment, truly happy. But Judith cannot share his emotion, as she sees only rivers of blood and stained earth before them.
As the sixth door is opened, downstage slowly fills with water; a lake of tears. He avoids her initial questions about his former loves, but when she confronts him about their bodies, which she believes she will find behind the last door, he gives her the final key. At the seventh door, his three former wives come up silently out of the bloody lake. They look like ghosts, but Judith says they are still alive. They are his queens of morning, noon, and evening, and Judith will join them in night. They dress her in robes and jewels and lead her back into the seventh door. Darkness falls on the bloodstained stage, and Bluebeard sings of eternal night while the castle shines behind him.
The opera is light and dark and covered in blood, endlessly creepy but also very emotional. Bluebeard is not exactly sympathetic but he is hardly depicted as just a murderous tyrant; the characters, both of them, have more depth to them than first appears. Written in an age when it was first really taking hold, there are strong psychological themes at work in both this and Erwartung, the second act.
Erwartung, by Schoenberg, similarly works with themes of women, weird relationships, and psychology. The opera only lasts half an hour and the plot is simple: the woman, the only real character, wanders through the forest seeking her lover, whom she eventually finds dead. The COC’s production shows everything through a white screen upon which handwriting is projected; the woman is in a psychiatric hospital relating her story to a psychiatrist, whose notes are what we see on the screen.
As she recounts her story she removes her straight jacket like an angelic escape artist to reveal a white gown similar to Judith’s. A bright moon shines above like an operating light. At one point, shadows carry off her hospital bed like pallbearers.
At one point she thinks she’s found her lover in the dark forest, and her singing and the effects at this point genuinely instilled fear into the audience. We felt her terror and her anger as she accuses her missing lover of infidelity, and we felt her hopelessness when she finds him dead and wanders off into the night of the hospital. Branches and blood move across the stage as in Bluebeard, and it’s no wonder these operas are often performed together.
-contributed by Risa Ian de Rege