The Canadian Opera Company did opera lovers a great favor in reviving the 1993 production that established its international reputation and became its signature piece. This innovative treatment of two one-act works, Bela Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle" and Arnold Schoenberg's "Erwartung," fully lived up the expectations raised by its reputation.
Set designer Michael Levine enclosed the proscenium in an inwardly beveled frame of shimmering tiles, making the action seem to take place in a golden shadow box designed by the painter Gustav Klimt. An effective use of perspective had the stage dramatically sloping down, toward the audience, widening into a wedge created by the flanking, forbidding walls.
Contrary to custom, Robert Lepage, the original director for this production, offered "Bluebeard" first, feeling that the progression from its murderous story better paved the way for the descent into madness of the Woman in "Erwartung." Surprisingly, the director cut the brief, spoken prologue that poses a riddle, which suggests that what we see on stage might only be happening in someone's mind.
Hungarian bass Peter Fried sang the title role with an unusual blend of powerful conviction and weariness, aided by the authenticity that a non-native speaker rarely brings to this unfamiliar language. As Judith, Sara Fulgoni both acted and sang with intensity that more than matched Fried. Her powerful sense of determination to learn all of her husband's secrets made her realization of her destiny all the more shocking.
Robert Thomson's dramatic use of shadow and color in the lighting design contributed heavily to the staging. At one point, the looming shadow of Bluebeard enveloped Judith, while the opening of the various doors flooded the stage with the appropriate vivid light.
Conductor Bernhard Kontarsky lead the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra in polished, idiomatic performances of both works.
The hallucinatory "Erwartung" was revelatory. The director opened up the treatment of the Woman's monologue, adding actors who played her psychiatrist, her lover and the other woman. The vivid use of dreamlike, special effects recalled those created by Salvador Dali for Hitchcock's film "Spellbound." Nina Warren sang the role of the Woman, giving an utterly convincing performance.
This production of a difficult work, by a notoriously difficult composer, left this listener, surprisingly, wanting to be part of an immediate repeat performance.
Canadian Opera Company, directed by Francois Racine, Hummingbird Centre, Toronto
Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Oct. 3 and 6, with a matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday