THE Canadian Opera Company's double bill of Bartok's ``Bluebeard's Castle'' and Schoenberg's ``Erwartung'' was unquestionably a high peak among the crags of this year's Edinburgh Festival.
This has been a festival notable for some mountainous productions. Among the most outstanding was a strident modern version of Aeschylus's ``The Persians'' directed by Peter Sellars as an indictment of all sides in the Gulf war, not to mention the acclaimed return of Mark Morris's Dance Group.
Morris's dancers are marvellously obedient to his unique choreographic invention; but to see Morris himself dance is to realize the distance separating directed and trained dance from dance that comes with consummate naturalness from the very center of the dancer.
Robert Wilson's immaculately crisp and inventive version of Gertrude Stein's verbally percussive play ``Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights'' was stimulatingly eccentric and surprising. It was performed by the Hebbel Theater of Berlin with total aplomb. The dog who says ``thank you'' was a particular Steinian delight.
So the memorable success of the Canadian Opera's contribution was heightened by worthy competition. What made this production of the two short operas exceptional was a remarkable degree of imagination brought to bear on visual as well as musical quality. Surrealist opera
Neither of these works obviously asks for spectacular presentation on stage. Psychological and inward-looking, ``Bluebeard's Castle'' has only two singing protagonists; ``Erwartung,'' one. These are operas that deal with the expression of secret and deeply gloomy (to say the least) recesses of human thought and dream. Belonging to the artistically adventurous years just before World War I, with music on the edge of a disturbing revolutionary modernity, both pieces could compel audience attention through voice and orchestra alone.
But with Canadian director Robert Lepage and designer Michael Levine, what is presented is a quite unforgettable vision. For both halves of the evening the stage plunges into a sloped perspective. The proscenium arch is framed like a picture, and - as certainly befits the atmosphere of the two operas - an impenetrable fog-laden darkness predominates within this frame, broken by sudden and unpredictable illuminations. Lighting designer Robert Thomson is rightly given prominent billing in the program.
The atmosphere is a peculiar mixture of claustrophobia and emptiness.
``Bluebeard's Castle'' is a darkly oppressive dungeon corridor, a gigantic stone wall angled down one side, and opposite it (as we later discover) is a line of seven keyholes, small in the distance, enormous in the foreground.
Judith, Bluebeard's bride, is determined to open all seven of these doors. Behind them lie her new husband's dangerous secrets. His reluctance to give her one key after another (as she persuades him to do) proves more than justified; what is revealed is not pleasant. We do not, however, see through the doors: Everything is done by a powerful combination of singing and lighting.
Judith's avowed aim is to let light flood into the castle and into Bluebeard's nightmare mind, which the castle obviously symbolizes. As each door pushes open - starting with the farthest -
light does pour out into the shadows. But the momentary hope that Judith's actions might mean redemption for Bluebeard are eroded by an accumulation of evidence that the man is a guilt-tormented bundle of cruelty and murderousness.
What baritone Victor Braun potently conveys is the awful contradictions of Bluebeard's psyche: His reluctance may be extreme, but it is more than evident that not only does he actually want his bride to open every door, but that he knows the inevitability of the climax, when the final door opens to reveal the three dead wives who preceded Judith. Yet he doesn't seem calculating and comes across as victim as much as perpetrator.
Finally Judith, too, whose belief in the power of love is counterbalanced by a kind of foolhardy courage, becomes a passive accomplice of Bluebeard's destructive intent. The part is sung and acted by mezzo-soprano Jane Gilbert with sturdy conviction. Neither role is allowed to be a mere symbol or cipher. Both have passion.
Lepage has been quoted as saying that he thinks ``Bluebeard's Castle'' does contain glimmers of optimism. If so, his production hardly bears him out. It eclipses, as Bartok's opera itself does, any such sign of hope. At one point Judith sings of the light flooding into the castle; yet behind her the gloom is merely closing in again.
A real coup de thtre occurs when the seventh door is opened. Across the front of the stage stands a dark pool of water. Judith trails through it to unlock the door. And as the blood-red light emerges, the three dead wives, one after another, actually swim on stage under water and rise slow and drenched from the depths. It is a brilliant notion.
The forest setting specified by Schoenberg for ``Erwartung,'' through which the tormentedly lost Woman wanders, is, in this production, suggested by the fall of tree-like shadows. But much more dominant is the use, once more, of the vast stone wall. Enigmatic set design
Designer Levine has mentioned the neurotic paintings of Klimt and Munch as inspirations for his sets. Certainly Munch's distraught women are fellow Freudian spirits with Schoenberg's Woman. She is presented as insane - a psychiatrist is taking notes, she wears a straitjacket. But a later Surrealist painter is brought into play here with striking effect: Magritte.
Out of the wall enigmatically appear hands; a tree branch; a falling, hanging figure; and the woman's lover, half-emerged, to embrace her. The psychiatrist is suddenly seen to be sitting, not on the ground, but with his two feet firmly planted on the vertical wall. The upside-down world of the Woman's mind is made visible. Later the psychiatrist is unexpectedly discovered sitting on top of the wall.
The entire piece is punctuated by the surreal and unexpected, and the fragmentary expressiveness of the music - its chaos and confused anguish - is wonderfully augmented by such fantastic theatrical invention.
One critical reaction to this emphasis on the visual - much of its originality achieved by quite simple and by no means high-tech methods - was that it relegates the music to the background, like a film score. Lepage is a theater director making his debut in opera. What he has recognized in both operas is that they can be exceedingly absorbing theater for all their apparent lack of action. Opera is, after all, a narrative, storytelling medium at root (even if the story happens to be deliberately confused as in ``Erwartung''). Opera is not only musical performance. It works on multiple levels. Or it does so when imaginatively directed.
The orchestral playing was vivid and fierce, and the singing was exceptionally full of feeling. Lepage has taken two of the least overtly dramatic modern operas and, without in any way losing their musical expression, has made them work as astonishing and compelling drama.
Perhaps, as with Mark Morris, the festival will have this company back for a return visit next year. And for longer than two nights.