The intricate depths of the human mind hold mystical keys to its darkened passages; dim, cavernous, serpentine halls of damp plaster and moldy stone, leading to the most treasured and guarded secret of all. Clinging to the passage lies a hidden truth. The psyche is fragile, and it seeks to guard itself at all times – to envelop itself in comforting layers of sturdy outer-shell and impenetrable walls.
Yet, it still loves. In its clandestine nature, it seeks the gentle heart of another to share its unbridled cry for requited affection, but that is not always enough to permit the unveiling of the truth – of its core, its essence.
The remaining two operas hosted by Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre, Inc. are often paired due to their similar nature, as both express those very caverns of the mind that choose to stay concealed against all odds.
As previously explored with “Dido and Aeneas” (the review for which can be accessed here), the gentle touch of love can leave an imprint deeper and more cataclysmic than the harshest torrent.
Harried, chaotic and provocative, the hectic fingers of musical director Samuel Kardos played the unusual music of Arnold Schoenberg. Considered avant-garde by some, the neurotic notes of the Austrian-born composer stand against much of which was accepted by his contemporaries and the test of time.
As such, it is expected that an opera of his would be just as unconventional. “Erwartung,” or “Expectation,” directed by John Schenkel, follows a lone woman (Jenny Searles) on a 20-minute psychological journey through a forest as she frightfully searches for her lover, only to discover his corpse.
Utilizing a nearly-empty stage, Searles vividly expressed an array of emotions, spanning from terror to devastation to reluctant acceptance. She followed the lunar tone of the evocative music, as the audience trailed her gradual, mental collapse.
Her voice was at once tender and extraordinarily fierce – haunting and emboldening – like a distant, evasive memory. Somber and melancholy, the soft, fragile woman ruminated throughout her journey in the forest.
At first feared the forest, then life without her mate.
Although opinions vary on the quality of this opera, it does present a certainty: The opportunity for a vocalist to truly reveal any hidden talent – and that of Searles came with all the subtlety of a booming, overwhelmingly bright and powerful hurricane.
With a voice at times eerily serene and incandescently strong at others, the talented soprano won a standing ovation from many of the theatre’s patrons at the opera’s end – and justifiably so.
A towering, mesmerizing man leans over a shivering young woman, eyes large with a suspicious mix of trepidation and desire as he traps her in a sensual embrace. She left the sanctuary of home and family, as well as her betrothed, to be with this mysterious stranger in his castle – always dark; always cold.
She yearns to understand what he hides behind closed doors; he simply wishes that she would love him and leave his secrets be.
Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” may have been a tale of high adventure about overcoming an evil villain, but Béla Bartók weaves a much more cerebral story.
The aforementioned lady was Judith (Shannon Capogreco) and the dashingly dangerous stranger was Duke Bluebeard (Bryce Smith); and as she uncovered the secrets behind the seven locked doors in the castle, the gloriously expressive opera about the clandestine catacombs of the mind unfolded.
It began with a spoken Prologue of the Bard – in Hungarian by Christopher Kardos, and in English by Maureen McCluskey, though their presence hardly disappeared then. Instead, they remained two ominous, black-clad figures who surreptitiously stalked the shadows of the background – at times active in the scene, and at others, twin eerie reminders of the mystifying nature of this tale.
Kardos resumed his role as pianist and musical director, while Linda Lehr hosted directorial duties for the production.
As the opera progressed and Judith unveiled the secrets of Bluebeard’s hidden rooms – each represented by a falling curtain – the magic of the performance truly came together, particularly through the superbly effective use of lighting.
A wounded crimson marked the duke’s torture chamber and a gorgeous display of slowly swiveling white circles painted the delicate Lake of Tears. The exhibit changed again by the light of the moon.
Throughout all this, Smith and Capogreco maintained an almost tragic yearning; brooding, and intensely felt, the strength of their shared passion overcame reason and steadily paved the way for calamity.
Capogreco was innocently engaging as the well-intentioned but ultimately too curious Judith. Though possessing an admirably attractive voice, her true strength lies in her ability to perform. Luminous, wide eyes explored the then brightly-lit walls of the duke’s castle, marred by the offending glow of gushing blood. Teasing fascination with a mild air of consternation, she skillfully balanced these seemingly oppositional emotions while maintaining a kind of endearing charm only thought to be summoned by naiveté.
Smith was absolutely dazzling as the agonized Bluebeard. A grand and brilliant bass, he added an uncommon touch of sympathy for the villain. Tortured and visibly sensitive, his Bluebeard simultaneously roused ire and compassion. He grinned menacingly as his eyes beheld his blood-stained walls, almost mockingly asking his paramour if she was afraid. Then he held her tenderly and begged her not to pursue his undoing – to stay away from the darkest recesses of his mind, his past – to simply love him.
But the shady corridors were far too enticing and not even the continued pleading of her enchanting, raven-haired companion was enough for Judith to avoid her fate.
In the grim shadows of the deepest alcoves of the mind, we hide the secrets and the keys to our vulnerabilities.
Is love enough to save us?
Photos courtesy of Eric Hazard.