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Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist and Krisztina Szabó as the Woman in Erwartung.

MICHAEL COOPER

Title
Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung
Company
The Canadian Opera Company
Venue
The Four Seasons Centre
City
Toronto
Review Date
Friday, May 08, 2015
Runs Until
Saturday, May 23, 2015

A century ago, two avant-garde works of musical theatre, neither really an opera, opened up for European audiences a phantasmagoria of darkness, death and despair that shockingly sketched out a world that was about to burst upon them. But where Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung (Expectation), drenched in the language and spirit of Sigmund Freud, penetrated an inner darkness, Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle touches on the darkness of the world, of the crime and horror that lies at the base of worldly greatness.

Both because of their subject matter and their length (the two together make up an intense hour and a half in the theatre), these two works have been paired in modern opera staging. It was just this pairing, in 1993, that lured famed Canadian theatre director Robert Lepage into the world of opera, where he has stayed, and famously so, ever since.

For the fourth time, the COC is reviving Lepage's discreet but effective imagining of both these works and, despite their age, these productions still work, still tear at the heart, and distress the imagination. Lepage, in the 20 years of his career since his original Erwartung/Bluebeard, has become notorious for the immense, complex and sometimes recalcitrant stage mechanics of his productions. But nothing fancy is in evidence here. With simple, effective sets, clever lighting and minimal stage business, Lepage has been able to enter deep into the meaning of these works, and illuminate them for us.

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In Bluebeard, that has meant creating a raked stage almost completely plunged into darkness, a darkness that Judith, Bluebeard's new wife, attempts to banish by opening the seven locked doors of his malevolent castle. As each door in turn is ritualistically opened (the basic plot of the piece), the contents of each room are hinted at merely by plays of light and illumination on the set – a torture chamber in red; riches and jewels in multicoloured hues, an empire suggested by an immense brown and green illumination. By the end of the opera, blood red, the true colour of Bluebeard's life, illuminates the entire stage.

For Erwartung, Lepage has literalized the many Freudian hints in the work (the libretto reads like a Freudian case study) by placing a psychiatrist on stage, thus framing the story of the unnamed Woman who tells a tale of murder, deception, hallucination and despair in a medical context. What this allows Lepage to do is shift in and out of reality, hallucination, dream and fiction on stage in a clever and fluid way, defeating our attempts to pin this intense exploration of a disturbed mind into a neat package.

And with Lepage's relatively minimal stage theatrics, we are also forced, as an audience, into the heart of the music, and both these scores are remarkable and complex – and both played with such dexterity and conviction by Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra. It's been said before, but worth repeating: Johannes Debus may be the single greatest gift Alexander Neef has given us over the past eight years or so of his tenure at the COC. In the Bartok, Debus plays up the drama in the music – and it is an intensely dramatic score – with the orchestra perfectly providing the main emotional arc in the piece. In the Schoenberg, despite its immense orchestration, Debus approached the work as a piece of chamber music, highlighting the hundreds, if not many hundreds, of crystalline moments of quiet beauty in the score. Erwartung seems to be a 30-minute, high-octane roller-coaster ride of extreme emotional intensity – and its text is just that. But behind the text, despite the anguish, lies a score that is often pastoral, quiet and full of pristine beauty.

On stage, the musical excellence was also in evidence. There are only three performers in these works, two in Bluebeard and a lone, single voice in Erwartung. John Relyea's powerful bass echoed hauntingly throughout the Four Seasons Centre, making his Bluebeard – the torturer, empire-builder, destroyer of wives, yet would-be lover – a terrifying presence for the audience. Unfortunately, Ekaterina Gubanova, as Judith, Bluebeard's latest wife and the woman who drags his secrets from him, couldn't match either Relyea's vocal power or his confidence in building a character. Gubanova has a wonderful voice, which occasionally was on display, but she didn't seem to inhabit her character as we need her to.

And then there's Krisztina Szabo, the one and only performer for the 30-plus minutes of Erwartung, possibly the most thankless role in opera, full of dissonances, leaps of register and pitch, all performed without the tiniest of tiny safety nets. Szabo is a courageous performer, full of the spirit of daring, and her Erwartung worked beautifully. Sometimes, Schoenberg unmercifully pits this solo voice against a full blaring orchestra, which makes her hard to hear, but especially in the quieter, more intimate sections of the work, Szabo projected a character, who, mad or sane, hallucinating or grounded, still elicits sympathy.

It's been quite a season for the COC – one that ends with opera yoked into the service of the roots of modernism, of the world we live in every day.

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