Even though the Chicago Symphony has performed and even recorded “Bluebeard’s Castle, ” the opportunity to see a live staging of Bartok’s mesmerizing single opera is rare indeed (Lyric Opera last staged it in 1970) and should not be missed. Despite a minimalist staging and set and an orchestra clanging away so loudly under Alexander Platt that Hungarian-Canadian mezzo-soprano Kristina Szabo’s Judith could barely be heard throughout the opera’s climactic moments, veteran bass superstar Samuel Ramey’s performance as Bluebeard makes this Chicago Opera Theater production a “Bluebeard” to remember. Ramey’s voice is not the flexible instrument that it was when it was in its glory, but the power and deep timbre are still there, as is his uncanny ability to voice a characterization like no bass singing today. Pity that the essential role of the narrator—which provides a context for this psychologically based retelling of the fairy tale where expectations are turned upside-down—was cut. Schoenberg’s early pre-serial melodrama “Erwatung” is a tough work to sing, and even tougher to stage, given that the “action” is in the delusional mind of its lead character. Or is it? As staged by COT on this double bill, the bloody, lifeless “victim” is distractingly onstage throughout Nancy Gustafson’s soliloquy, which, though sung with flair and precision, was marred by jagged, overloud orchestral playing. This is Schoeneberg’s Expressionist period, folks, not his twelve-tone period. Thankfully, Gustafson’s riveting performance ultimately rescues the experience, a descent into paranoia that is the iconic aural equivalent of Munch’s “The Scream.” (Dennis Polkow)
“Bluebeard’s Castle & Erwartung” runs at the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)704-8414, through May 19.