Seattle Opera's double bill of Schoenberg and Bartok is a sensational, gorgeous horror show not to be missed: multiple adjectives must be used. The tortured stories are of love, murder, architecture, psychiatry. The operas—Bartok's only, Bluebeard's Castle (1911), and Schoenberg's pre-12-tone Erwartung (German for "expectation," 1909)—were written by jittery composers who found little solace in tradition and even less in the future they were compelled to create. To match their sense of the double edge of progress, the stage in this production is dangerously steep, extending back and up from the proscenium of a giant golden picture frame to a high vanishing point upstage, a cliff of perception the characters might disappear down. Meanwhile, gravity moves in the other direction, tumbling the upsetting tales out toward the audience—a psychological projection interrupted only by the self-conscious frame. This is expressionist-symbolist modernism in action. Dee-licious.
Even without this staging, the stories and the music alone—Bartok's notes butting heads, Schoenberg's behaving like mortally wounded animals—are majestically strange. Erwartung is a 30-minute solo mad scene for The Woman (written by a woman, librettist Marie Pappenheim; here acted very well and sung beautifully but with a little too much strength and not enough waver by Susan Marie Pierson). Onstage with her are three inhumanly writhing dancers: The Psychiatrist, The Lover, and The Mistress. What happens involves a bloody scythe, a naked man rolling slowly downstage, the world turning briefly onto its side, and a straitjacket that turns into a stylish wrap and back again.
In Bluebeard, a two-hander, the castle is a metaphor for the man, and Judith is the archetypal lover asking questions: Who are you? Who else have you loved? The castle has seven doors. As she thrusts each open, its contents and the couple's terrified/agonized reactions are cast in light, shadow, and water—a real pool lines the footlights. John Relyea is sultry and perfect as Bluebeard; Malgorzata Walewska's mezzo is chills-inducing but her soprano is slight.
When this production—originally created in 1993 by theater wunderkind Robert Lepage for the Canadian Opera Company—traveled to the adventurous Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Times dismissed it as overly influenced by the mannered clichés of horror films: blood-drenched zombies, bodies emerging hands-first from walls like the undead, malevolent white-coated doctors. It's true: All these do appear. But the twist is their sheer visual attractiveness, which adds up to a genuine, not false, perversity. Lepage's design is far more influenced by the California light-and-space artists of the 1960s—especially James Turrell, who makes light seem solid—than Sam Raimi. Erwartung is the stronger of the two, but both are unforgettable.
Now, it is disappointing that Lepage's production is both Seattle Opera's first foray into forward-looking early-20th-century material (Strauss doesn't really count) and also that it appears here as a novelty fully 16 years after it was created. But the world of American opera is stunningly conservative. There were empty seats on opening night and regulars twittering that the proceedings were "creepy" and "weird," as if opera itself were not deeply weird. Opera is perfect perversion, not a pasta feast. Go inhale the opiate.