Seattle Symphony opens the doors on Bartok's elusive opera

The rarely staged Bluebeard's Castle is given a compelling performance as part of the symphony's Central Europe Music Festival. A work of fascinating symbolic power, Bartok's sole opera was enriched in this concert staging by glass artworks from Dale Chihuly.
The rarely staged Bluebeard's Castle is given a compelling performance as part of the symphony's Central Europe Music Festival. A work of fascinating symbolic power, Bartok's sole opera was enriched in this concert staging by glass artworks from Dale Chihuly.

Béla Bartók was prompted to complete his first (and only) opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, as his entry in a Hungarian opera competition in 1911. The jury rejected it. The following year, the same fate befell Bluebeard when it was ruled out of yet another lucrative contest on the grounds of being insufficiently dramatic. The judgment of posterity has since vindicated Bartók's early masterpiece, but the work remains difficult to come by in the opera house. In part this is because the hour-long, one-act opera resists sharing a double bill. Moreover, the expansive orchestral forces it requires overshadow whatever economies might be gained from the chamber-like cast (just two singers and a narrator). And of course there is the nature of the work itself, in which heavy symbolism and interior psychological revelations take the place of dramatic action. So it was an inspired idea of Gerard Schwarz to attempt what he termed a "concert staging" in Benaroya Hall. The Seattle Symphony performances (May 31 and June 2) launched this season's Central Europe Music Festival (1.3 MB PDF) now under way and running through June 9. (I'll have a round-up review of the festival at its end.) This staging concept involved going beyond a straightforward concert performance but instead presenting Bluebeard with the singers acting downstage against a specially built set design (the orchestra being more or less curtained behind this while sharing the stage). Said set design was commissioned from glass artist Dale Chihuly - a fact which, not surprisingly, received the lion's share of attention in the ad campaigns for the program. But why not play up the celebrity of a collaborating artist from another medium to spark interest in the latest Seattle Symphony adventure? This is the kind of "crossover" – that is, in the sense of cross-pollination of the arts - that has far more potential of attracting new audiences than the ridiculous, desperate pandering we are too often given instead. Chihuly's collaboration with the Seattle Symphony is a first (even if the artist is indelibly associated with the ensemble's performing home, thanks to the signature spiraling chandeliers that dominate both ends of the Benaroya Hall foyer). But it's also, in a curious way, a return to familiar ground. Back in 1993, Chihuly designed the set for Seattle Opera's Pelléas et Mélisande (also conducted by Schwarz), responding to the challenges of Maurice Maeterlinck's opaque and elusive libretto. Maeterlinck also wrote a version of the Bluebeard legend, Ariane et Barbe-Bleu, which was set as a three-act opera in 1907 by Paul Dukas, of The Sorcerer's Apprentice fame. (A new recording of that work, incidentally, is about to be released from Telarc.) For his opera, Bartók set a play by Béla Balázs directly inspired by the Maeterlinck source. The composer, meanwhile, incorporates a significant influence from Debussy, along with strains of late romanticism and elements suggested by Hungarian folk idioms. The Symbolist impulse permeating Pelléas et Mélisande is therefore very much present in Bartók's opera. His Bluebeard is far more ambiguous than the crazed serial killer codified in Charles Perrault's Mother Goose fairy-tale version. The fascination of the Bluebeard legend, in its innumerable permutations (from Victorian Gothic to Stephen King's The Shining) isn't hard to fathom, for it rests on the ultimate inscrutability of those we most want to know - on the tenacious necessity of secrets. In Bluebeard's Castle, the new wife the Duke brings home similarly introduces another dimension of mystery. She is given the name Judith, which has symbolic echoes that set her apart from the embattled near-victim of the fairy-tale. (Judith alludes to the Biblical heroine who beheaded Holofernes, representing a figure of sexual danger who intrigued fin-de-siècle artists in a way reminiscent of Salome.) The implication is that Bluebeard, the rumored destroyer of wives, is himself destroyed by some aspect of the revelations Judith uncovers. The story is pared down to barest simplicity in the Bartók-Balázs retelling. Bluebeard leads his new wife into his castle for the first time. Judith insists on casting light into the darkened castle by opening each of seven sealed doors lining the entrance hall. Each door opens to reveal a symbolic feature of Bluebeard himself: a torture chamber, his weapons collection, his wealth, his garden, the full grandeur of his domains, a lake of tears, and, behind the seventh door, his three previous wives. They have not been murdered but rather "collected," representing different times of the day. Judith now acquiesces to complete the collection and the castle returns to darkness. Introducing the proceedings is a brief prologue spoken by a "bard" (Balázs's text employs an ancient Magyar folk idiom) - here performed by local billionaire astronaut Charles Simonyi (one of the main sponsors of the festival). The bard suggests that the action may be happening inside our imaginations, "behind the curtain of our eyelids," as much as on stage. So the unique challenge Chilhuly faced was to convey the open-ended possibilities of each door's symbolic contents – allowing our imaginations free reign without tying them down too concretely. His design consisted of seven 20-foot-high chambers - pitch black on the outside – which rotated on ball bearings to "open" and reveal six giant glass sculptures set before mirrored panels. (The final door is empty until the four wives take their places inside and it is finally closed at the end of the opera.) Chihuly's abstractions and visual metaphors for the most part made an intriguing commentary: thin, sharp, fire-red rods in the torture chamber and deliciously colorful baubles in the treasure house, for example. I found the massive teardrops hanging over blood-like glass globes (for the Lake of Tears) especially effective, while the set for the Duke's domains, from my angle at least, conjured a distracting echo of pink flamingoes. Significantly, these glass sculptures were not inert but came alive with changing colors according to the opera's specific lighting scheme. Light itself is a dominant metaphor in the original, and the moment of greatest illumination (with the opening of Door 5) elicits the score's most overpowering climax. The hall itself, meanwhile, was dominated by honeycomb-like shadows cast over the stage. Another reason, perhaps, that Bluebeard's Castle is so seldom encountered in the opera house is due to its lack of ingratiating solos. Bartók writes an extraordinarily intricate, richly textured score in which the orchestra carries the burden of musical interest. Each door's opening sets off a signature sonority, while a recurring motif for the blood that stains Bluebeard's castle provides underlying unity. Schwarz led an impressively rehearsed Seattle Symphony in what was often a thrilling account. His approach was more straightforward than subtle, but totally involving and keenly attentive both to Bartók's unsettling night sounds and to the score's brash dissonances. Problems of balance were probably inevitable, given the physical constraints of the staging. I had one quibble about the overdone sound effects to represent the castle's "sighs," described in the stage directions as "deep, heavy sighs ... like the night wind long, gloomy corridors." What we heard was an overamplified rumbling that might have come from the soundtrack to a B film of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Mezzo Sally Burgess conveyed Judith's complex emotional spectrum with admirable effect. Her sustained notes - as in her awed reaction to the garden - had a Straussian ripeness. As Bluebeard, bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin wove in and out of audibility in his lower range. What he lacked in terms of the Duke's menacing aspects was compensated by the lyrical warmth he brought to his longer solo section near the end as he describes the three previous wives. Bluebeard is often compared with Lohengrin, unable to control his wife's insatiable curiosity, but it's the Wagner's Dutchman he more plaintively resembles, locked into a pattern of alienation. Both Burgess and Austin did their best with Sharon Ott's awkward direction (she was billed as "staging consultant"), which consisted primarily of silly romantic posturing. Balancing out the Bartók was a passionate account, in the first half, of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů's Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani. The Seattle Symphony and Schwarz made apparent their conviction about this despairing work (written on the eve of Hitler's takeover of the Sudetenland). Particularly memorable was the sense of a slow-motion nightmare in the middle movement.


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