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Ekaterina Gubanova, left, stars as Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle, and Krisztina Szabo stars as Woman in Erwartung.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

If Freud's hysterical patients were a musical form, what would they sound like? Robert Lepage's classical and widely travelled 1993 Canadian Opera Company production of Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung, which underscores the work's psychoanalytic pedigree, offers one answer to this question. The character of The Woman who in the libretto wanders through an oneiric dark forest, here wanders through a confined space, and, after battling her memories and hallucinations, faces an analyst in a white coat. Lepage, set and costume designer Michael Levine and lighting designer Robert Thomson honour Schoenberg's own "psychoanalytic period" of 1908-13 and the librettist Marie Pappenheim's connections with the milieu. The staging is still recognizably Lepage in its expressive lighting and continuous play of perspectives, but – appropriately – it has none of the spectacle quality that we've come to associate with Lepage's big productions today.

The 30-minute piece premiered in 1909, at the time in Schoenberg's life when he was primarily interested in exploring atonal compositional expression. Neither Pappenheim nor Schoenberg, however, specified that it should be staged in an asylum, and over the years, as its renown grew, Lepage's Erwartung elicited occasional criticism for confining the largely abstract work to a too-literal interpretation.

Schoenberg's interest in the idea of the unconscious and its relation to artistic creation, however, is evident in his writings from the period. The librettist Pappenheim, a graduate from the faculty of medicine at the University of Vienna and a poet, was a distant relative of the prominent social activist and women's education advocate Bertha Pappenheim, today also remembered as "Anna O.", the first case study described by Josef Breuer in Studies on Hysteria, a pioneering account of the practice of psychoanalysis co-written with Freud in 1895. Schoenberg, Pappenheim and Freud, as well as many of his patients and their families, all lived in Vienna's ninth district, Alsergrund. The Woman of Erwartung during her night of distress echoes many of the symptoms of Breuer's Anna O. and Freud's case studies "Caecilie M." and "Dora," while the objects she sees appear truncated, condensed, their meaning displaced as they would appear in a dream. There are hallucinations, speech difficulties, amnesia and displays of what Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester call, in their classic Freud's Women, the bodily poetry of neurotics.

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The music shares these traits. "You feel that in a few bars of Erwartung more happens than in the entire works by some other composers," says the COC's music director Johannes Debus when we meet in his office after the orchestral rehearsal. "Schoenberg condenses emotions, and they change fast. It's one of the most expressive pieces I know, and it only lasts half an hour." The size of the orchestra in the pit will be considerable, but each section is given prominence in a very individual way. Within sections too, there is no hierarchy. "Usually you have the principal playing all the solos. But here, say, the second clarinetist will have as many solos as the first, or the third bassoon as the first, and so on. I wouldn't go as far as to say that he democratized the sections, but he is using the full potential of the orchestra."

He spreads the score across the table between us. "You can see here, how the emphasis will move across the sections. Certain structure appears in the strings, then in the winds, then the brass, it's quite polyphonic that way. And Schoenberg is very specific about what should be prioritized. He always marks the Hauptstimme with an H – the main voice within the orchestra. When you have so many different voices speaking freely, you want to make sure that one has the priority. Mishmash is to be avoided."

Were you to disregard the Hauptstimme markings, would it all sound different? "Yes! There's this complaint – or let's rather say, a prejudice – against atonal music that it's a random succession of sounds, and that an animal or a child could compose it, and so on. It's not true: it's highly organized. Once we understand the structure, the role of each instrument in each situation, it's expressive and beautiful."

While the score may be tightly structured, its theatrical side is endowed with an unusual degree of freedom. Explains François Racine, the revival director who remounted the work a great many times since the mid-1990s: "In opera, unlike in theatre, time is structured by the music. A phrase has to develop and conclude. When you're listening to Puccini and Mimi starts singing, you're listening more than watching, you expect the high notes, et cetera. In Schoenberg, on the other hand, you're always moving ahead – he can change the colours every two bars. He is not bound by the traditions of tonal composing, he can shift and go in unexpected directions. It's almost cinematic, how well the visual blends with the music."

Not having to stay in a particular key opens more freedom above the pit. "It's hard for singers to play sustained time. That's why you get a lot of bad acting in opera," he says. "The body cannot recognize the three-minute held expression of emotion; in real life we don't do that. You cannot hold the emotion – it's like water, it's always moving. When you try to play the prolonged emotion, there's all kinds of strange arm and hand action. Your body is saying to you, I don't know how to do this. In Erwartung, the duration of emotion is closer to human nature."

Schoenberg's one-acter of course is not presented alone, but preceded by the longer and more tonal, if no less dark, Bluebeard's Castle by Bela Bartok. The two are frequently paired, as they are similarly tenebrous and melancholy. Bela Balazs's libretto, loosely based on the Charles Perrault fairy tale and Maeterlinck's Ariane et Barbe-bleue, takes us behind the gates of Bluebeard's castle the night that he welcomes Judith, his new wife. Compared to the recent Bluebeard by Calixto Bieito at the Komische Oper in Berlin or even the new Met Bluebeard by Mariusz Trelinski, Lepage's is a fairly gentle staging, a wispy play of shades. The horror comes from Bartok's score and the retrospective spill-over from Erwartung.

Is The Woman akin to Judith, Bluebeard's naive wife, or is she closer to Bluebeard himself? Director Racine ponders the question. "Definitely Bluebeard. Judith is obviously a victim, while The Woman possibly committed an act of violence herself. Both Bluebeard and The Woman are locked, spatially and mentally. Both avoid being conscious of something – in different ways. He is taciturn; she talks a lot but in fragments and around what is not being said. She's craving for the love that she's lost; Bluebeard doesn't want to dwell on his loves past or current because love makes him too vulnerable."

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Most of the colour and much of the imagery in Bluebeard's dark abode comes from the orchestra. As Judith opens one door after another, Bartok does not shy away from musical illustration. There is the musical glitter of gold behind one door, the archaic solemnity of the knightly weapons and armour heard behind another, and a blast of brass in the orchestral tutti when the door opens to the vastness of the Bluebeard's realm. "At the end of the prologue, there's a beautiful pastoral solo that Solti once described as a clarinet in the puszta," Debus says. Bartok opens up or narrows the space by the means of orchestration.

Throughout the rich aural tapestry there is one recurring interval: the minor second, which represents the blood motif. One full note played alongside its first half-step is not the pleasantest of sounds. Debus plays it on the upright in his office. "It hurts. And it's meant to hurt," he says. Having first appeared behind door number one revealing a torture chamber, the motif keeps disturbing the scenery behind every subsequent door and moves through the entire orchestra. "The amount of [minor] seconds increases, and at door six there is this incredible moment in which the seconds come in like the flash of lightning, cutting through the music." Door six opens onto the lake of tears. It all starts beautifully enough with orchestral shimmers, the celesta and the harp, but the mood changes as Judith insists on having the key to the seventh door. "Bartok is perhaps giving a warning here of more bloodshed ahead," says Debus.

As the final door closes, joining Judith to the dead wives, the musical material returns to how it began, and the Bluebeard back to his solitude. The Woman of Erwartung, too, stays alone at the mercy of her apparitions, even under medical supervision. Neither broke through the locks of the fantasy. The night continues.

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