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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 6

Opéra de Montréal

by MISHA ASTER / March 6, 2004

Version française...

Erwartung /Bluebeard's Castle

"Snow, squirrels, 90 TV channels,hundreds of kinds of cereal..."

Gregory Vajda still has a few vivid memories of his first trip to Montreal. In 1985, 12-year old Vajda and his father travelled from their native Budapest to Canada to hear his mother, soprano Veronika Kincses, sing Mimi in L'Opéra de Montréal's production of La Bohème. Almost 20 years later, Vajda is preparing for his own debut at L'Opéra de Montréal, conducting Robert Lepage's critically acclaimed double-bill production of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung, opening March 13 at Place des Arts. For Maestro Vajda, this is a special debut not only because of his fond childhood memories but also because he will introduce music that is deeply connected to his own sense of Central European heritage.

When discussing his background, Vajda speaks effusively to Montreal audiences about the great Hungarian musical tradition which he feels a part of, from Bartok, Kodaly and Dohnanyi to Kurtag, Eotvos and Ligeti. Like many of his important predecessors, Vajda is both a performer and composer, putting him in an exceptional category among conductors today.

It was initially through leading performances of his own music that Vajda grew into a conductor. During his studies in Budapest he came under the influence of composer-conductor Peter Eotvos, from whom he learned "a technique of conducting and how to rehearse a piece, how to treat singers and musicians. I read and learn scores quickly, and approach everything like a world premiere."

Unique diction

The most distinctive characteristic of Hungarian music, says Vajda, is its unique diction. "Singers have to face it, of course, but the Hungarian language deeply influences instrumental writing as well." Hungarian, distantly related to Finnish, is a highly rhythmic language, with strong accents usually falling on the first syllable of words and the beginning of sentences. "Hungarian diction affects composers' thinking in terms of melody and rhythm, and in Bartok's music, there is also the added influence of folk culture." In Duke Bluebeard's Castle, these folk influences are heard throughout.

Duke Bluebeard's Castle--Bartok's only opera--is one of the significant cornerstones of his oeuvre. "You can hear a lot of Richard Strauss in the opera, and feel the presence of the Romantic tradition as well as the Hungarian characteristics." In terms of orchestration and use of musical metaphor, Duke Bluebeard's Castle reveals these Romantic connections. "The first gate (the torture chamber) features a high clarinet; the brass instruments in the fifth gate (landscape with red clouds); the lake of tears (sixth gate), the harp. When the Duke is talking about his three former wives, the music continues to rise suggestively in tonality. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the opera."

This post-Romantic musical-dramatic detailing is one of the more significant similarities between Bartok's opera and Arnold Schoenberg's "monodrama." Erwartung was written in 1909, two years prior to Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Although there is no evidence to suggest Bartok was aware of Schoenberg's work, "there seems to have been something in the air at that time that brought out these qualities of expressionism, symbolism, and metaphor--searching for a language of psychology in music." Indeed, for many years Schoenberg himself attended regular sessions with the "father of psychoanalysis," Dr. Sigmund Freud, and was deeply involved in the artistic, literary and scientific vanguard exploring the boundaries of human consciousness at the turn of the 20th Century.

For Vajda, however, it is Schoenberg's artistry that is so remarkable. "The reason I like the music of this part of Schoenberg's life so much is because it is not about systems or theory, but always about music. Erwartung is a short piece--perhaps 35 minutes--but can feel much longer because it is so deep, so dense." Compositionally, Schoenberg's considerations were very similar to those of Bartok. "For me, the operas are two sides of the same problem. One from the man's side (Bluebeard), the other from the woman's (Erwartung). They are both about people unable to be together, but also unable to live without each other. One hears these pessimistic, tragic tensions very clearly in the music."

A giant improvisation

Vajda describes conducting Schoenberg's score as leading a giant improvisation. Erwartung is composed in a very open form, corresponding to the protagonist's free stream of consciousness. "Of course the music is very precisely written, and practically speaking, everything must be very strictly fixed with the singer and orchestra in rehearsals, but in performance you go with the flow to achieve a very flexible, spontaneous style."

The singer in Erwartung (named simply "The Woman") contributes to the impulsive impression of the work through the seemingly free shifting of her voice, from whispered speech to full-throttle operatic singing. Much of the work calls for a style especially developed by Schoenberg, called Sprechgesang, which is a type of heightened speech scored with X's and arrows across the musical staff, akin in many respects to the earlier operatic convention of recitativo.

Schoenberg, like Bartok, was very aware of his musical predecessors in composing Erwartung. Aside from the classical recitativo influence, Richard Wagner still looms large in terms of harmonic construction, while Gustav Mahler "influences the whole orchestral sound colour" of the work. Especially remarkable features include moments calling for the woodwind players to lift their instruments, providing a "shrieky" effect, and the use of a harp prepared with little pieces of paper to create a particularly haunting sound.

Lepage's version

The expressionistic world of atmospheric colours and effects is evoked not just musically, but also imagistically in the critically acclaimed Robert Lepage production of Duke Bluebeard's Castle-Erwartung this March. Since it was first premiered in Toronto in 1992, Lepage's production has been remounted eight times worldwide. "The success of this production," says François Racine, the director responsible for recreating Lepage's staging for every production since 1992, "comes from the brilliant way it blends together the expressionist sense of emotional breakdown with powerful visual images. Michael Levine (the set designer) designed this huge frame around the set that suggests a painting by Klimt." The idea is to evoke Klimt, Freud, Vienna, and that era of expressionism.

Visual and musical expression

Within the imaginative theatrical world created by Lepage, Levine, and their lighting designer Rob Thompson, the dramatic and psychological tensions evoked musically also find visual expression. Says Racine, "The space of Bluebeard is very closed and dark, giving a powerful sense of physical claustrophobia, with the doors just providing a glimpse of what is outside. Erwartung, by contrast, is a very open space, with just one wall, and a lot of light, but the piece still conveys a sense of mental claustrophobia. The woman's hallucinations encroach upon her. This theme of enclosure, physical in the first, internal in the second, is very important to the production."

When he first heard the music, Racine says, the Bartok struck him as being "an enormous wave of music," the Schoenberg as "conveying a sense of very touching passion." He admits that both pieces are musically and thematically challenging, "but once you start to overlap the music with images on stage, it becomes very powerful. The imagery is so well supported by the music, you do not remark, 'It's weird music,' you just get carried away by the total impact."

Lepage's version has had more than a decade of outstanding critical and popular success across the globe. Now Montreal audiences will finally get a chance to experience this unique musical-theatrical spectacle for themselves. For Lepage, Racine, and in a special sense for Maestro Vajda too, this promises to be an exceptional homecoming.

Photo 1 caption: Gregory Vajda

Photo 2 caption: François Racine

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