Grindings and Flutterings at Seattle Opera

Robert Lepage’s double production of one-acts, finally performed by SO, makes opera a living art.

A lurid proscenium border painted a coldly glittering, Klimt-like gold announces the Expressionist decadence of Seattle Opera's stunning new double bill of one-acts even before the curtain rises. In Robert Lepage's abstract, dreamlike, thrillingly inventive production, created for the Canadian Opera Company and well-traveled since, Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (1911) and Schoenberg's Erwartung (1909) play out within a deep black box. Its floor, ceiling, and walls slope up, down, and in, forming a cloistering stage-within-a-stage that focuses relentlessly on the psychological dramas inside.Not just something for singers to stand on or in front of, this set is designed to be interacted with—in Lepage's realization of Bartok's duodrama, it practically acts as a third character. As Duke Bluebeard and his new wife Judith return to his castle, she is drawn to seven locked doors; despite his warnings, and later pleadings, she demands to open them. Here the doors are represented only by seven illuminated keyholes suspended in the blackness. As each opens, the light thrown against the opposite wall (as well as Bartok's cinematic music) suggests what's within—some wonders, some horrors, all tainted with blood.At the start of Bluebeard, the stage design suggests the vastness of a castle hall, but becomes increasingly claustrophobic—not only because of the tricks it plays with perspective, but because Seattle Opera's cast of two, bass-baritone John Relyea and soprano Malgorzata Walewska, are the sorts of performers who fill a space. By the end of their who's-the-victim-who's-the-villain dance, after Judith's obsession with the mysterious doors wears down Bluebeard's sinister dominance, they seem to be crowding each other off the stage, so overwhelming are their personalities. Relyea's dark, richly rumbling bass-baritone isn't just powerful but versatile; in previous SO productions, he's scored in comic and sympathetic roles too. Walewska has a presence that recalls the inner fire and attention-magnet imperiousness of another Polish diva, Ewa Podles, and is fearless enough to let a piercing high note at the opera's climax morph into a scream.Schoenberg's Erwartung ("Expectation") forgoes even the slender narrative thread on which Bluebeard hangs. It's more often done in concert because of the libretto's unstageable ambiguities, but Lepage interprets it as the hallucination of a woman—the only singing character—who may be dreaming, or actually remembering, that she's killed her lover. Chairs and beds float, the moon shifts from silver to scarlet, a psychiatrist in a lab coat appears and disappears, and a nude man rolls in slow motion down to the lip of the stage. Susan Marie Pierson sings/acts (this is one of those intimate, committed performances where you can't separate the two) with a courageous directness and vividness. The Seattle Symphony was ablaze on opening night, playing Schoenberg's knotty, splashy score, in particular, with a sense of absolute assurance. With their command of the music's massive grindings and shadowy flutterings, representing the woman's mental chaos, we seem to be listening directly to her thoughts.The entire evening was a knockout, not just as a display of imaginative stagecraft, but because every component worked, and worked together. This is one of those productions in which opera finally seems to reach its centuries-old goal of being all-encompassing theater—not a voice recital in costume, not a playscript with pitches attached to each syllable set against orchestral wallpaper. Seattle Opera, we know, reliably presents thoughtful and lovely naturalistic stagings of standard-rep operas, but by bringing Lepage's production here, they're giving us a fuller, deeper realization of what opera can be—and, arguably, what it will need to be to flourish in the decades to come as a living art rather than a rarefied museum exhibit. This double bill should be seen by all opera fans, and even—especially—by people who think they're not. You're not going to see anything like this on any other stage in

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