Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle (Metropolitan Opera Live in HD, February 14, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Bluebeard’s Castle was another matter entirely: a great opera (Bartók shows such a mastery of the form it’s amazing this was his only opera!), elegantly and (once you accept the basic assumption at its core) logically plotted, with two great roles for soprano and baritone. This time Trelinski’s direction seemed to come from the horror films of the 1950’s and 1960’s — indeed one could readily imagine the story of Bluebeard’s Castle as a horror film from that period with Vincent Price, an actor able to bridge the gap between courtly and mean as only two of his predecessors (Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) had been, as the menacing but superficially attractive Bluebeard. Indeed, Charles noted the similarity between Bluebeard’s Castle and the best-selling novel (just released as a movie) Fifty Shades of Gray: both are about mysterious super-rich men who have somehow managed to entice young, naïve women to run off with them and become their sex slaves. At the start of Trelinski’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle we see a dark wood and a car pulling up — from the fancy headlights (three on each side) we guess it’s a vehicle from the late 1950’s and the woman who emerges from it, Judith (Nadja Michael), is dressed in a cocktail-party dress with a tight top that shows off her nipples — she looks hard-bitten but not totally dissolute. She announces that she has left her father, mother, brother and fiancé to run off with Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko, who oddly came off as sexier in the tight blue jeans he was wearing for his pre-taped opening interview than in the suit he wears in the opera itself) and live with him in his mysterious dark castle.

The castle consists of a hallway and seven mysterious rooms Bluebeard insists on keeping locked. Of course, Judith — in the tradition of overly curious women that began with Eve and included Elsa in Lohengrindemands that Bluebeard open each of the rooms in succession and basically throw light on his darkest secrets. Room one is an S/M torture dungeon; room two is full of weapons; room three is full of gold and jewels; room four opens a window to Bluebeard’s mines and landed estates, the sources of his wealth; room five turns out to be the entrance to a lovely garden; room six is a pool of tears, and room seven … well, let’s just say that your traditional idea of who Bluebeard was and what he did to the women he enticed into his lair is not quite reflected in this story, based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault (who was essentially interested in collecting French folklore and fashioning it into commercial literature the way the Grimm brothers were doing in Germany and Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark); Bluebeard’s previous wives are still alive but in a zombie-ized state, totally divorced of any will of their own and following his bidding without question, and as the opera (at least in Trelinski’s production) ends with Bluebeard descending into a half-dug grave and embracing a corpse that appears to be Judith once she enters her ultimate role as yet another member of Bluebeard’s zombie harem. This time the music was remarkable, fully characterized and vividly dramatic, and Trelinski’s production matched it ably; though no medium short of actual film could do justice to the scene changes as Bluebeard and Judith make it through the seven rooms and she spots the blood in or on virtually every object that mars its beauty, Trelinski did a damned fine job, creating a surprising number of different visual atmospheres that communicated both the beauty and horror of each room. The singers, too, excelled in music that gave them far more to work with than Tchaikovsky’s amiable meanderings; aided by Bartók’s insightful (though almost continually dissonant) melodic lines and his vivid orchestration, they created two fully fleshed-out characters, at once believable and symbolic.

Interestingly, a decade before Bartók worked on this opera (he began it in 1910 and finished it in 1917), the French composer Paul Dukas did an opera on the same story, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, though his was taken from a Maurice Maeterlinck play based on the Perrault tale, and he and Maeterlinck used the story’s ending — Ariane/Judith tries to get Bluebeard’s other female captives to rebel, and they refuse, telling her they’re perfectly happy where they are — to make an anti-feminist, anti-Leftist point that it’s impossible to “liberate” other people and it’s best just to leave them alone and let them be happy in the ways that suit them. Bartók and Balázs have a considerably darker view of the tale; it’s unclear from their ending whether Bluebeard’s other wives are alive, dead (except in the vividly expressed fantasies of them in Bluebeard’s last aria) or in some state in between, and (fittingly for a libretto writer who was called on to adapt Brecht and had solid Leftist credentials himself) there’s an implicit but unmistakable critique of the rich and how they can literally turn anything, including fellow human beings, into their possessions. A vividly sung, intelligently produced presentation of a far richer, deeper and more interesting work, Bluebeard’s Castle triumphed where Iolanta sort-of did O.K. — Iolanta isn’t a bad opera, but it’s hardly alive to the potential complexities of the story whereas Bluebeard’s Castle seizes them; it’s not surprising that Iolanta is a virtually unknown opera while Bluebeard’s Castle has at least a toehold in the repertory and probably would get performed even more if it weren’t for the twin handicaps of length (about an hour, lengthened here by some sound effects Trelinski added as some of the rooms are opened, which means it has to have a double-bill partner) and language. When it was first done outside Hungary performances were usually in German, and the first U.S. productions were sung in English (I’d like to hear it that way some day!) — indeed, the official score contains the text in Hungarian (which the Met used), German and English, and the English translation was done by the composer’s son, Peter Bartók.