Finnish National Opera (Helsinki)

Bartok, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; Leoncavallo, I Pagliacci

A strange juxtaposition at the Finnish National OperaBartok’Duke Bluebeard’s Castlepaired with Leoncavallo’Pagliacci.  They did not work as a pairing.  Leoncavallo’s comic tragedy, while perfectly nice, simply cannot hold its ground with the much powerful and altogether gruesome Bartok opera.

The clue to the evening came with some preliminary words flashed on a scrim before the Bartok work (words in Hungarian, presumably from Bartok’s own introductory materials, with translation in Finnish, Swedish, and English).  These words described the ambiguity among reality, imagination, and staging.  In its way, this provided the only conceivable bridge between two completely different operas.  When Pagliacci began after the intermission, it opened backstage at this very opera, with Bluebeard and Judith, still in costume, receiving congratulations from the chorus (dressed as theater staff).  Still in character as a backstage hand, Tonio mingled with this crowd to give his opening monologue.  But the whole concept was stretched way too far.

Indeed, this Pagliacci took place mostly back stage at the Finnish National Opera.  This made the stage rather busy, with chorus members playing stage hands and production staff and running all over the place.  When Canio went off-script towards the end, the other main characters huddled around the person playing the director, who had a large script, and clearly debated among themselves what was happening and how to get Canio back on-script.  Meanwhile, as a comic tragedy, the staging added numerous sight-gags.  These worked to a point, but did prove somewhat distracting.  They also undermined the seriousness of the tragedy, further distancing the Pagliacci from Bluebeard’s Castle.  Indeed, the director could have had success linking the two in a scholarly essay, which might have contained enlightenment, but beyond academic theory, these operas do not belong together.

At the end of Pagliacci, when Canio stabbed Nedda, she screamed and fell off the back of the puppet stage.  There followed more incessant screaming from her.  Silvio belatedly ran to her rescue by climbing up onto that puppet stage to confront Canio.  But instead of Canio stabbing Silvio, as per the plot, the music froze several bars before the end and the curtain dropped.  The conductor, Mikko Franck, left the pit.  What seemed like several minutes of silence later, the conductor appeared in front of the curtain, announced (what are supposed to be Tonio’s lines) that the comedy had finished, and then conducted the orchestra’s final bars.  No.  Just no.

This production overshadowed some good singing, particularly by Stephen Gadd as Tonio and Mikhail Agafonov as Canio.

Perhaps the staging could have worked, if it had followed something more traditional – such as its usual partner Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, for example.  Coming after Batok’s Bluebeard’s Castle just meant that poor Leoncavallo got overwhelmed by a much more serious work.  The staging for Bluebeard was extremely appropriate (this opera has no action and requires no real staging – Bartok placed everything in the dense music and devastating psychology of the characters).  An excellent use of light complimented the music and demonstrated that the director fully understood what Bartok tried to accomplish – no easy task.  Vladimir Baykov, as Duke Bluebeard, kept the edge on his strong voice throughout, and in the end the audience could easily sympathize with the condemned (or damned) man.  Niina Keitel, as Judith, did not quite match his standard, but nevertheless also understood the psychological torment of her character, driven to open one door after an another despite Bluebeard begging her not to, until it became too late and she sank into the earth with his previous wives, leaving him to suffer in inevitable eternal darkness.  And if the evening had ended there, I would have been satisfied.

The Finnish National Opera performs in a 20-year-old hall of extremely tasteful design.  With the sun going down now at nearly 10 p.m., it remained light at the end of the performance.  The lobby has large windows overlooking a lake, and is surrounded by green.  A very pleasant and cheerful venue and worth experiencing.