He didn’t have a big blue beard but he did have a big bass voice. Basso Eric Halfvarson and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung joined voices for a menacing night at the opera. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony with London-based video artist Nick Hillel served up a new media version of Bartók’s 1918 one act opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.
Before we descended into the demented nobleman’s disquieting chamber, four members of the NWS performed Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6, the violins in the hands of Jeannette Jang and Vivek Jayaraman, the viola held by Anthony Parce and the ample cellist was David Meyer.
This quartet, first premiering in 1939, capturing the turmoil brewing in Europe and perhaps in Bartók’s soul, was imbued with a recurring melancholic theme first launched by the solo viola, all the string voices soon swirling and swarming in the dark whirlwind of the first movement, passing the theme over to the lone cello in the second, leading the upper voices, scooping and ascending with abandon, the violins at times slicing through the other voices, abruptly ending the movement with a brief pizzicato (plucking of strings). The voices diverge from the lead violin in the third, breaking into an aggressive romp; they all convene with a jocular pizzicato, plucked notes drawn out of the air at every frequency. This foursome navigated together with precision, their entrances clean, their unison voices as if in prayer, with a final hopeful chord to end the piece.
After setting the stage with this terrifically rendered quartet, three characters join Halfvarson and DeYoung to give the audience passage into Bluebeard’s warped world, a Bard (a haunting George Schiavone) urging the audience to “listen with amazement” and answer the riddle, “Where is the stage? Outside or within?” -- the forth and fifth dramatis personæ being the castle and the orchestra.
Béla Balázs’s libretto infuses Charles Perrault’s 1697 French fairy tale "Bluebeard" with psychological layers that would make Freud’s head spin. Bluebeard has just arrived in his interior chambers (we later learn this to be a metaphor for his own twisted soul) with his new wife, Judith, who discovers 7 locked doors. She wants the keys to unlock them so that light might fill the obscure chamber of shadow, setting the dramatic tension in motion. He resists her repeated requests claiming that he merely wants her love without questions. His resistance is trumped by her curiosity turned intrigue turned obsession. As her fascination grows with the opening of each successive door, we glimpse the power and foreboding which Bluebeard apparently wants to suppress. Why he commits apparent acts of horrific violence and why he wants to quash his twisted urges with Judith (or is that the game?) we will leave to team Freud.
The traditional red, yellow, gold, green, white, dark and silver chamber doors were replaced by Hillel’s images projected onto screens built into the New World Center, above and beside the dark looming stage. A torture chamber, an armory, the treasury, door number 4 opening onto a vast garden, the kingdom behind door number 5, are replaced with abstract projected video images of gears, sharp objects, sparkling gems, time lapsed blooming flowers, and floating ominous clouds. A pool of tears behind door 6 is the puzzle piece that Judith fits together as the tears of her gruesome husband’s previous wives. Bluebeard hands over the key to the 7th and last door, overlapping distorted silhouettes suggesting the figures of his three previous wives representing the daybreak, midday and evening of his life. He proclaims Judith the “love of his midnight” as she dissolves into the blackness, him standing alone, again, in his “tomb of secrets”.
The NWS handled Bartók’s substantial score with all of the craft of any well established orchestra. The torment of the torture chamber, crescendo bursts, thumping blasts, continuous undercurrent of foreboding, battle-hardened music and fanfare from the brass, a jarring violin solo, percolating tingle from the winds like beams of light, a divine harp glissando, and a potent brass section when the door to Bluebeard’s kingdom is opened, mounting crescendos, four trumpets and four trombones flanking the orchestra, torrents of sound raining down, pushing out the walls of the hall, and members of the orchestra delivering “ghostly sighs” as some of the doors open, brought complete dimension and shape to the drama.
Both with big Wagnerian voices, Halfvarson and DeYoung have tripped the boards on operatic stages worldwide and recorded on top shelf classical labels. Ensconced in fluid melodic phrases rather than aria, Halfvarson (bald in a black suit and black cape) and DeYoung (with curly blond hair in a black full length dress) journey the text with honest characterization, Halfvarson resonating with his considerable instrument from toe to crown, delivering boyishness, hesitancy, fear, supremacy, confusion and anguish in remarkable proportion, and, DeYoung returning his dodges with determination and strength with uncommon vocal nuance
I might have preferred the more traditional doors backlit with color, allowing the libretto and singers to stimulate our imaginations rather than having our minds prompted by the abstract videos.
A final warning to the audience: “The morals of the tale can apply to the real world as well as to Bluebeard and Judith.” Observe carefully!