Let There be Light versus Seven Shades of Black

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To the Darkness. Photo credit: Luca Rossato/flickr/cc by-nc-nd 2.0

Pyotr Tchaikovsky versus Béla Bartók

It’s Valentine’s Day and we’re at the MET Opera HD Live double header performance of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and you’d think it’d be Pyotr over Béla without a doubt, hands-down, in a breeze, every way but Sunday, by a country mile!

Wrong.

Bluebeard’s Castle is by far the more interesting piece, one of the darkest productions of any kind—movie, book, theater, TV, my novel, name it—that I’ve ever seen.

Iolanta: Young innocent woman in distress. She’s blind, and her father, The King, who wears one glove, hides her in a cabin in the woods because he’s ashamed, not even letting the girl realize she IS blind. Along comes a hero in white who, with the help of god, brings her to her senses. All of them. God is great, marriage is imminent, and all rejoice.

Bluebeard: Young innocent woman looking for distress comes to the castle of her new husband, The Duke, who wears one glove, to find out what he’s about. Seven locked doors command her attention and she has to pry behind every one, even while he protests, Don’t go there, Darling, Really, you don’t want to know, but she is not deterred, cannot help herself; she opens each and every one in succession, finding torture, war, destruction, tears, yet asks for more, insatiably, must poke into every nook and cranny of his psyche right up to the opening of that seventh and final door. Happy Valentine’s Day, Darling, he says metaphorically, welcoming her into that final horror of his soul and castle. Without the help of god, he brings her to her senses.

Iolanta is trivial, clumsily philosophical, pretending to deeper things but failing in most respects except for the music, creative set, some interesting special effects, and the performers. God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.

Bluebeard is darker than the darkest shade of gray, darker than the darkest side of Saturn, blacker than just about anything you’ve ever seen. There is no god, no redemption, no tenderness, kindness, love, or any other positive quality—only soul-crushing blackness permeating all.

Thence, entertainment.

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