Milwaukee Symphony: "Bluebeard's Castle"
On Friday night, October 30th, Georgie and I went to the Marcus Center for the Milwaukee Symphony’s concert of “Bluebeard’s Castle” by Bela Bartok, and the Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat major for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
This was a sentimental outing for both of us, since a performance of “Bluebeard’s Castle” by the Madison Symphony was one of our first dates, and inspired some good creative work by both of us. Also, this was our first look at the Symphony’s new music director, Edo de Waart, and, the fact that glass artist Dale Chihuly had constructed set pieces also added interest.
The Mozart was the first part of the program, and we were very impressed. It is a very enjoyable piece. It was fascinating to watch the soloists play back and forth with one another and the orchestra, and violinist Ilana Setapen (MSO Associate Concertmaster) and Robert Levine (MSO Principal Viola) performed marvelously. Maestro de Waart is a very low-profile conductor who does not bounce around like some others, but had the orchestra working perfectly with the soloists.
“Bluebeard’s Castle,” (Hungarian title, “Herzog Blaubarts Burg”) is an unusual piece. Technically an opera in one act, it is most often staged as a concert performance since there are only two characters and very little physical action. By contrast, if portrayed naturalistically, the setting as described would be enormously complex, and therefore is best done conceptually.
The libretto, by Hungarian poet Bela Balaz, takes the Bluebeard story in a different and psychologically interesting direction than the more familiar versions. In this one, the story opens before dawn as Bluebeard (sung by Andrea Silvestrelli) brings his new wife, Judith (Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet) home to his dark castle. We learn that she has eloped with him, leaving behind a dull arranged marriage. Instead of giving his wife the keys and going off, Bluebeard insists that the seven doors into his great hall must remain locked, and the secrets behind them remain hidden.
Judith, willful, insists that light and air must come into the windowless halls, and demands that all the doors be unlocked. Bluebeard reveals a passive/aggressive/abusive personality as he first suggests that Judith might be happier going home, then threatens her with unhappiness if she discovers too much, but then reacts with pleasure at the gradual opening of his hidden rooms, and the effects of light and air.
Effects of light are very much to the fore, as Chihuly’s illuminated sculptures are one by one revealed as the libretto calls for each door to be opened. The first doors are daunting enough: Bluebeard’s torture chamber, his armory, and his treasury, wherein all the implements, weapons, gold and jewels are stained with blood, and sculpturally represented by shapes suggesting ruby spikes, clubs and jagged spears, and stacked bars of gold.
The next doors, opening on Bluebeard’s garden and on his domains (glass flowers and organic shapes) are initially better, but close inspection reveals that the flowers have been watered with blood, and even the clouds in Bluebeard’s domain cast blood-colored shadows.
The sixth door shows a milky pool (huge glass drops depending into a bubbling base) which Bluebeard says is all tears. Judith demands to know who has shed these tears, and whose blood has watered the garden. Bluebeard tries to dissuade Judith, begging her to be content with what she has done so far. Instead, she demands the last door be opened.
Bluebeard allows her to do so, revealing three silent women, Bluebeard’s prior wives, who have shed the blood and tears but who are now “immortal”. Now Judith must joint them, locked away, and Bluebeard’s castle will return to its dark and silent state.
As can be seen, this version lacks the “happy ending” of some—there are no brothers for Judith to flee to for rescue--but also adds psychological and mythic depths by incorporating the theme of the “fairy husband/wife” who is a good spouse until some taboo is broken (as in Psyche seeing Cupid’s face).
Both singers had strong, rich voices which filled the hall, and managed both elocution of the Hungarian text and the modal score in fine form. As we expected, Maestro de Waart, recently tapped to fill in for Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, calculated the dynamics of the huge Wagnerian orchestra to a nicety, supporting the singers just as needed. The Chihuly glass sculptures provided an interesting, if abstract, background adding visual interest to piece where normally the most interesting thing to look at is the soprano’s gown.