Strange Romance

Written February 2015 trying to lure people to The Met Opera Live in HD broadcast. Opera goers will pack the house for something they may have seen and/or heard dozens of times; getting them to attend less familiar but brilliant works can be tough.

These are rather bold and extraordinary programming choices for Valentine’s Day: Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta features a blind princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess and isn’t aware that everyone around her can see; she just has a feeling that she might be missing out on something! Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle concerns a mysterious polygamist, lots of locked doors, and a current wife who suspects her husband is a serial killer! But all may not be what it seems, in spite of the blood. Whoa! Not your usual romantic date material. However, each of these operas is magnificent in quite different ways.

Iolanta was Tchaikovsky’s final opera. Reluctant to begin the work, the composer felt he had written himself out. Posterity has proved him wrong, however. Though not often performed, the work always dazzles. Iolanta is full of rich, gorgeous music. Evocative and romantic, its fairy tale quality suggests Tchaikovsky’s great ballet scores. Indeed, at the 1892 premier, the work was resented with The Nutcracker, the artist’s final ballet. There is an arranged marriage, an interloping suitor, and a death sentence for a transgressor. Of course, love wins out. Interesting to note is the Muslim hero of the piece, Ibn-Hakia, who engineers the cure of the heroine’s blindness. If all you know of Tchaikovsky is his ballets, symphonies, or the 1812 Overture, you owe it to yourself to experience his operas. They are truly his best works, where his gifts were fully realized.

Bluebeard’s Castle amazes and confounds. The composer’s only opera is heavy with psycho-sexual symbolism and marks a profound shift in 20th century opera. After nearly 100 years, it remains edge-of-the-seat compelling, one of the most dramatically riveting of all operas. With only two main characters, Bartók creates and sustains an almost unbearable tension. You think you know where this is going, but it doesn’t go there. It goes, well, to an even stranger place. Bartók’s sound palette is absolutely original, his harmonic system idiosyncratic. Polytonal rather than atonal, the music’s combination of consonance and dissonance achieves what all of opera pretends to do: it moves you.

Don’t miss either of these rarities.

John Deaderick is a local theater instructor, director, actor, and the author of Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis, available at


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