Vancouver Opera

BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE by Bela Bartok

ERWARTUNG by Arnold Schoenberg

The Vancouver Opera Orchestra

David Angler, Conductor

Francois Racine, Director

Rob Thomson, Lighting Design

May 1,4,6 and 8 at 8pm

The Queen Elizabeth Theatre

By Roxanne Davies

The last opera of the season is quite unlike anything that has ever been staged by the Vancouver Opera. A fascinating cinematographic extravaganza featuring several highly trained and talented singers, this production is to opera what Cirque Du Soleil is to the common circus. The lighting, setting and props are as essential to the event as the dark and psychologically complex themes. It feeds the imagination and resonates in the consciousness as one experiences the vocal acrobatics of the singers.

I was gratified to think that the Vancouver Opera anticipated that Vancouver audiences would be sophisticated enough to enjoy this beautiful production based on the theatrical genius of Quebec born writer/theatre director/filmmaker Robert Lepage. It was also designed by Lepage's regular collaborator, Michael Levine. This opera has been staged to great acclaim in Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, and Melbourne.

Bluebeard's Castle features Romanian born Bass singer Csaba Airizer as Bluebeard. He has sung the role many times and has perfected his character as the dark and brooding Duke with with so many secrets to hide. American mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson was electrifying as his fourth wife, Judith, who insists to see what is hiding behind the seven doors in his gloomy castle.

Kudos to Lighting Director, Rob Thomson. As each door is opened to release its mystery, there are technically sophisticated special effects that left me breathless. Shadows cast on the blood stained walls as Judith goes deeper into the castle and into her husband's psyche are both complex and hypnotic. The setting reminded me of the paintings of Rembrandt.

Polanski's movie Revulsion with Catherine Deneuve also came to mind as Judith kept retreating to the horrid walls for security as she finally comes to the seventh door, behind which her fate resides.

There are also three dancers, representing the three murdered brides, but the term dancer is problematic, since they do not so much dance as provide visual manifestations of the thoughts of the characters. They simply glided out of the floor as they came to take Judith.

Bartok wrote this opera in 1911 but only saw it staged in 1918. He was chronicling the disintegration of European salon and cafe society at the beginning of the century. He explored the new values that were identifying an increasingly complex society that was being analyzed by the likes of Sigmund Freud, who would have nodded his drug addled head in agreement as Bluebeard's blood soaked keys unlocked the deep dark secrets of his psyche. The next time I put blood meal into my roses I will think of Judith telling Bluebeard that his roses have been grown in blood.

The second opera also features a diva dressed in white but this time it is not a wedding gown but the hospital straight jacket worn by beautiful Texas soprano Mary Jane Johnson as she searches for her lover. Well known to Vancouver audiences, Johnson was extraordinary in the piece which she admits was very difficult to learn how to sing.

Schoenberg is not a composer one can hum along with or belt out in the shower. In a dream like stupor , the character, known only as The Woman, searches along a moonlit forest path for her lover. She sings of being terrified by shadows and by imagined pursuit and wild beasts. She stumbles over her lover's body, whom she may have killed.

She enters a state of hysterical mourning, tries to revive the corpse and eventually, wanders off, leans against the hospital wall from where she began her demented journey as the orchestral sound evaporates with an icy shiver.

The three actors, some of them seemingly naked (body suits? I couldn't tell from where I was sitting) play the psychiatrist, the lover and mistress. The theatrical inventions are superb, especially as the body disappears, sinking into the floor.

I was surprised and somewhat gratified that the Wall Foundation, which I believe is stoutly Mennonite, would finance an opera featuring naked actors. At the end of each piece, after the audience is roused from its hypnotic stupour, there was sustained applause for the talented cast. The orchestra under the direction of Agler was superb as it matched the intensity of the stories without ever overwhelming the singers.

In the post production gala backstage, Board president Joseph McHugh said that Vancouver mayor Philip Owen had proclaimed that May 2 to 9 be designated Vancouver Opera Week. The city is hosting the 29th Annual Opera America Conference, with over 600 delegates attending the event from around the world. Many of the delegates, hopefully were in the audience to see this spectacular production.

If I was ever frightened by the Y2K bug, my fears have been allayed. The Vancouver Opera has announced its 1999/2000 season and they will be staging two of my favorite operas, Mozart's Don Giovanni and Puccini's Madama Butterfly. As sure as there is a God in heaven, who I suspect loves opera, having been so dramatic as he created this complex planet, he will surely want the Vancouver Opera's next season to take place.