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Opera Review (NYC): Double-bill of Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle at Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre, February 21, 2010

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The next two offerings in Opera Manhattan’s One-Act Opera Festival were presented in a double-billing, as is typically done with these psychological thrillers.

ERWARTUNG (Expectation) – by Arnold Schoenberg, written 1909, premiered 1924

One might cringe at the thought of sitting through a 30-minute opera written by Schoenberg. He hasn’t exactly gained as many fans in the opera world as, say, Puccini. However, this musical prophet was a genius in his own right, delivering atonal-esque melodies and harmonies that were harsh and somewhat ugly at the first strike of the hammer but stunning and intricately beautiful when presented in the context of a lone woman in the middle of a psychotic episode trying to make sense of an unkind world and a traumatic event – the death/murder of her husband. Was he there or wasn’t he? Was he cheating on her or not? Was he dead? Did she do it?  

Or was this just a dream? Schoenberg said, "In Erwartung the aim is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour." The excitement was definitely front and center when the first few glorious chords spewed forth from the piano this past weekend.

Tearing through the forest with hurricane-strength in a desperate attempt to find her love, Jenny Searles was a force to be reckoned with. Hers is an amazing instrument of power and skill. This young talent drew you in from the moment of her first breath and made you hang on to each and every splendid note that filled the air for 30 exhilarating minutes. She was the very stature of beauty amidst the ugly world in which she existed, standing tall and elegant at times, then lying silent and still when nothing else was left for her but simple expectation. Searles tore into the score with abandon and gave a riveting performance of this extremely difficult masterpiece.

At the keyboard, Samuel Kardos provided a stunning display of what must be the nimblest fingers to ever grace a keyboard. The pages of the piano score were so over-stuffed with musical notes that at times it was easier to see what remained white instead of trying to guess which notes were actually printed there. It was truly a dazzling accomplishment from quite a talented musician.

The direction by John Schenkel was well thought out and simplistic for the better. Why over-think a piece that was so well written to begin with? He stayed out of the way of the composer and let the music speak for itself. This veteran director truly understands when the conventions of music should dictate what ideas and emotions one should embody. He did not try to force the piece to become something it was not, he simply let it be what the composer wanted it to be – simple at times, glorious always.

The tastefully dramatic, often minimal lighting against the stark white backdrop was playful and quite ingenious at times. From blood to forests and sparkling streams, the audience was given a heightened sense of what this character was truly experiencing just by the carefully planned change of the lights.

A KEKSZAKALU HERZEG VARA (BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE) – by Bela Bartók, premiered 1911

In the dark dingy depths of the castle of Duke Bluebeard lay the secrets to a man of whom only legend speaks. The “whispered rumors” tell of the horrors that await those who enter – and yet Judith is still tempted to find out what could possibly be so awful about the man she loves. After assuring him that she truly is there because she loves him, she quickly becomes fascinated with opening the seven mysterious black doors that hide the Duke’s most treasured and protected belongings. He reluctantly agrees, door after door, growing more agitated the further she advances into his dark troubled mind. Ultimately, he only wants for her to simply love him. However, she cannot control the urge to know everything and, therefore, demands to see the murdered bodies of his former wives behind the seventh door.

The only vocal work he ever wrote, Bartok's opera masterfully poses that double-sided question every relationship in history has encountered – how much to know about your lover’s past and how much to tell your lover.

Handled with verve and a stunning intensity by Bryce Smith, Duke Bluebeard was a truly unconventional villain – he was actually human. His elegant and powerful bass voice – mountainous and grand at times, gentle and tenderly sweet when needed – lured the captive audience deep into the pits of his lair. His sexual prowess seduced you to desire his sinister motives. One found oneself begging for the next door to be unlocked just to see what could possibly be hidden deep in the heart of this intriguing character.

Euphoric at the prospect of torturing people, awestruck by his vast domain, and bitterly jaded by the pain of his tears – Smith was outright amazing. He mesmerized the viewer with a wide range of emotions that disturbed the inner depths of their being, stirred emotions you never knew could exist for a villain, enticed you to gently cross over to the dark side and then tempted you to love the one person you should never have trusted in the first place. You actually had feelings for this horrible man who only wanted to be loved, but in the end was forced to reveal his true sadistic nature.

Curiosity killed the cat and, this time, that cat was Judith. She was not satisfied only to love and be loved, she had to know his secrets. She had to know about his former loves. Because of that desire, she too became one of the Duke’s treasured possessions. Mezzo-Soprano Shannon Capogreco provided a strong-willed, warm-voiced Judith. She was an admirable heroine who was alive with energy as she tried to brighten the musty old castle. She was weary and pathetic as the burden of her actions and the depths of the Duke’s dark twisted mind was placed upon her. This graceful beauty took you on a youthful look into the entrapments of love – enticed by the rumors, aroused at the thought of his power, tormented by the reality of his past. She charged full-force toward the seventh door, never looking back and never thinking twice about what might be in store for her there.

The piece opened with a prologue which is typically omitted. Thankfully, it was included here with an ingenious twist: the original poetic Hungarian spoken by Chris Kardos was intertwined with a new English translation performed by the delightful and enticing Maureen McCluskey, thus setting the “stage” and inviting the viewer to question if the play was outside or within their mind’s eye. The two then remained ever-present, acting as an extension of the Duke’s castle, opening the doors and strewing jewelry, flowers, and blood when called for by the composer.

Samuel Kardos returned to the keyboard and provided a strong accompaniment for this talented cast, leading them through the rapturous music that thoroughly enveloped the listener and over-whelmed them in every sexually sensual way imaginable.

Director Linda Lehr provided a stunning production that made use of many beautiful lighting effects and fabrics that represented the seven grand doors and their disturbing secrets. Bringing a well-seasoned directorial approach to a piece that is so easy to misunderstand and really screw up, she simply let Bartók’s music sing – and did it ever!

Bluebeard’s Castle will be celebrating its 100th birthday in 2011. Astonishingly, it is still as relevant as ever to young lovers everywhere and, hopefully, will see more playing time as the centennial rolls around. Even harder to believe is that Erwartung just turned 101 years old. As musically advanced today as it was in 1909, the shame is that this truly beautiful work of art remains underappreciated both by the opera-goer and opera companies.

Kudos to Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre for tackling these gigantic works and doing them justice with a quality that you would expect from larger houses. Even though the orchestra was missing, this production definitely lived up to the standards set forth by the composers. As they say in their slogan, which was proudly emblazoned upstage center in bright white lettering, OMRT truly is a company for artists by artists.

This Opera Manhattan production closed Feb. 21.

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  • Kathy Christie

    Bravo, Jenny Searles. So glad NYC has a chance to feel your power. You’re the best!