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Bela Bartok in bronze sculpture by Hungarian Andras Beck
05 Jun 2012

Bluebeard’s Castle, New World Symphony

“I can guess what you are hiding.
Bloodstain on your warrior’s weapons.
Blood upon your crown of glory.
Red the soil around your flowers.
Red the shade your cloud was throwing.
Now I know it all, oh, Bluebeard.”

Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle; Quartet No. 6 for Strings, BB 119 (1939)

Judith: Michelle DeYoung; Duke Bluebeard: Eric Halfvarson. New World Symphony. Nick Hillel, director. Jeannette Jang and Vivek Jayaraman, violin; Anthony Parce, viola; David Meyer, cello. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor.

Above: Bela Bartok in bronze sculpture by Hungarian Andras Beck


Judith’s soliloquy builds up to be both a précis of Bela Bartok’s opera and the anticipating tableaux announcing entrance to the seventh and final door to Bluebeard’s Castle. What awaits on the other side?

Librettist Bela Balazs described the words he wrote over Bartok’s music as “the ballad of inner life” and the castle as Bluebeard’s soul. Neither Bartok nor Balazs fail to intrigue — on the other side of that final door, a secret, a mystery. The opera leaves the audience wondering what just happened.

Such is life.

Balazs’ look at the Bluebeard legend is open to greater analysis than the essay of its origins, from a series of fairy tales written by Charles Perrault. Perrault’s creation has facial hair that literally comes out blue. The staying power of children’s stories seems to be bound to this very interpretive unobtrusiveness, for kids to dance in and for adults to play with cloaked meanings.

Today’s reader might be startled by the period-typical gore and terror of Perrault’s Bluebeard, the type whose pages could be torn from a Stephen King novel. Perrault’s story of an old curmudgeon Duke drips blood — corpses hang from hooks, decapitation is considered, murder lurks behind every castle door. This can read as quite monstrous, writing geared for little eyes and ears as it is. Balazs’ version leaves more to the imagination — definitely more Hitchcockian.

Bartok’s Bluebeard tills fertile creative ground for all involved in its production. At its “new laboratory” in Miami Beach, New World Symphony’s performance (on April 27th) took firm root in the theme of gender roles and how men and women come at love. The producers also played with the seedlings of mystery that permeate the work.

American bass Eric Halfvarson took Balazs’ “joyless” Bluebeard to a place male personified, instrumental in communication style, proud (Perrault describes him as with “a heart harder than any stone”) in temperament, with time on his side. Halfvarson reached all of these angles — in the way he turned away from Judith with up-turned nose (credit also to director Nick Hillel), in calling on the force of his voice to surge with the orchestra at the precipice to door five, and in the directness of the bass’ delivery, communicating in crumbs as Bluebeard does.

Halfvarson’s Bluebeard flexes his kingdom and might; he broods, avoiding memories that wound his spirit and using stonewalling artfully — the bass’ pleas for Judith to “stop asking questions” were teasingly unconvincing. Halfvarson turned lines like ”stop asking questions” and “stones of sorrow thrill with rapture” into gender-line crossing come-hither taunts. The bass made other moments with Judith intimate. Halfvarson highlighted Bluebeard’s own questioning and searching.

Michigander Mezzo Michelle DeYoung, of the potent middle register required for this music — a quality that has won DeYoung some of the heaviest assignments in classical vocal music — lent more than a hint of despair to a Judith that Balazs wrote to be hopeful and inquisitive, the “tend and befriend” careful nurturer. DeYoung capably expressed Judith’s determination to bring warmth and light to Bluebeard’s world, left out as she feels from it.

DeYoung projected an air of wonderment, a tense-filled moment, in telling of the vastness of Bluebeard’s kingdom. Judith wants Bluebeard’s castle rooms “unfastened” and flown open. Bluebeard’s castle trembles at the prospect. Judith reassures with “I’ll never leave you,” read tenderly by DeYoung.

At the threshold to that final door, Judith intuits that the light (from which she must shield her eyes at one point), the color, the signs of richness in Bluebeard’s castle point to a woman, or women: “tell me whom you loved before me.” DeYoung worked a fine characterization as Judith, a soul also searching.

Both Halfvarson and DeYoung communicated their respective characters’ search for meaning. Bluebeard does this through acquisitions, fortifying his castle. Judith does this by looking into Bluebeard, the rooms in his castle. “Give me another key,” Judith begs. Balazs seems to take the audience to the possible conclusion that meaning in life is found by living it. Expect no answers. Balazs takes the audience through the natural course of a human problem: searching in mystery.

This production, in its U.S. premiere, played very close to that heart, utilizing the New World Symphony’s new space and its multiple-angled walls to project (slides from Rite Digital in association with Yeast Culture) a mix of images calling on elements of the castle: water droplets, gears, spikes and sprockets, pin-needles poking through cloth, assembly-line munitions, shadows of Bluebeard’s wives dancing and posing, and lathery crimson in droves — drips and splashes.

Video dragomen Hillel, Nick Corrigan (co-director and VJ) and Richard Slaney (producer) kept things mysterious down to other details — DeYoung and Halfvarson, on the upper deck over the orchestra stage and just under the main wall slides, wore concert black — her in gown, him in evil-genius outfit and cape. The role of narrator, a mysterious sort in its own right that opens the opera and then vanishes, was read — in sight but from the wings — with leathery and seasoned voice by actor/photographer George Schiavone. Schiavone was also in informal black.

These types of subtleties worked into Balazs’ text and with Bartok’s music. Micheal Tilson Thomas’ movements were more measured at the stick, even for the huge and spacious sound — making it feel like the room was getting smaller — created by the orchestra at full throttle at castle door five. MTT trembled along with the castle.

The playing of NWS was of its usual fire and some flair; if not as successful with the mystery of Bartok’s writing (through the second door, in music reminiscent of Turandot’s riddle scene, the overall musical space tended towards stiff) instrumentalists kept the musical line tight enough to carry interest through musical transitions and to assert the Hungarian composer’s genius. The playing also failed to capture the folksiness, the Hungarian gypsy colors of this work. Instrumentalists did better with the bi-tonal and technical aspects in Bluebeard, as well as in supporting the distinctiveness of the “blood motive.”

A lot of 20th century music gets flack for excesses blamed on composers jumping on the bandwagon of atonality. Bartok’s only opera does less to connect him to this movement than do many of his other works. His Quartet No. 6 for Strings firmly places Bartok in this period while also putting him in a class apart altogether. The dissonance is there; the irregular beats, entrances, and changes are there; in this music, there is at center a strong sense of the elegiac, the pastoral, as well.

In a nice marrying of works, the quartet preceded the opera in concert. The work of the young players was on the mark if missing elegance at times. Violinist Jeanette Jang summoned power when necessary and held a disciplined and steady finishing note to the first movement. The stridency of movement two, requiring sharp cuts at bows but easier in terms of unison playing, was a good showing. The third movement, with its faint and curious echoing of the Psycho theme and Rhapsody in Blue, held up well. For the final movement, the NWS quartet (Vivek Jayaraman at violin, Anthony Parce at viola, and David Meyer at cello) assembled here handled the volume shifts — in a section that holds no little mystery to it.

What of the mystery of Duke Bluebeard and the “whispered rumors” that ruminate throughout his castle? What is behind that door? Who are the narrator, the Duke, Judith, and orchestra and MTT? What is the music? What just happened? What is the meaning of all this?

Such is life.

Robert Carreras

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