The chronicle of a lonely do-gooder family doctor who survived.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bluebeard's Castle

Shiree and I just attended our 37th (!) opera, The Seattle Opera's production of Bluebeard's Castle, a wholly engrossing twisted and dark psychological production. Every aspect of the performance, the music, the story, the set, the singing, and acting contributed to one of the most memorable evenings of opera I've had and was a perfect example of why we keep going back. Seattle, for being a pretty small city, is lucky to have such a world class opera.

The music, written by Bela Bartok 90 years ago is surprisingly modern with its loud-quiet-loud repeating pattern and quietly looping background melodies which perfectly suit the narrative, a series of dark revelations about a woman's new groom, a mysterious man with whom she fell in love and eloped before knowing him perhaps as well as she should have.

The story begins with a narrator appearing in front of the stage who tells us that the story exists as much in our minds as it does on the stage, setting us up for the powerful metaphor that the dark secrets that hide inside us are like the locked rooms in the basement of Bluebeard's castle.

The music begins with Judith and her new husband arriving at his castle, a dark stone set that suggests a vast underground hallway, with bars closing over the only gate off in the distance, and series of seven locked doors along one wall. Judith notes that the castle is cold and the walls are damp. She's scared and she begs her husband to open the doors to let in the light. Bluebeard refuses but finally relents after Judith makes it a test of Bluebeard's love.

The first door opens and red light comes pouring out, illuminating the opposite wall with an undulating red pattern. It's a torture chamber drenched in the blood of Bluebeard's victims. Bombastic music ensues as Judith sings of her shock. As she comes to grips with the unsavory work that goes along with her husband's title as Duke, she tells Bluebeard she must know what's behind the other doors.

Behind the second door, we find Bluebeard's armory, again the weapons are stained with fresh blood.

Bluebeard tells Judith he cannot allow her to see anything else, but she persists and he gives her the next three keys.

Room number three is looking better, a golden light pours out through she doorway and she finds a mountain of treasure and jewels, but it's only on closer inspection that they too are covered in blood.

The fourth door is a beautiful garden, full of bright flowers and the music begins to change, it's gentler. The shadow of trees blowing in the soft breeze illuminates the inside of the castle. But as Bluebeard sings of the beauty of his gardens, Judith again sees blood and realizes that the garden has been watered in blood.

When Judith opens the fifth door, we hear loud, loud, majestic music. Blue and white light project onto the castle wall, suggesting a view of Earth from space as they look over the vast lands that Bluebeard has conquered, at the cost of the blood of his enemies. Bluebeard pleads with Judith, let this be enough, please go no further. But she cannot resist the temptation to see more.

With the six door, we see a smooth peaceful lake. The music becomes quiet and sad as Judith runs her hands in the water and she is told that it is a lake of tears, though the question of whose tears is left to the imagination of the audience.

Bluebeard is adamant about her not looking beyond the seventh door, but Judith embraces him and repeatedly tells him how much she loves him. That if he doesn't allow her to see the final room she will start to believe the rumors that he has murdered his previous wives.


I won't spoil it by revealing what happens next*, but it's Hitchcockian in the extreme, and one of the great moments in opera. It must have totally bowled people over when Bluebeard's Castle debuted in Budapest in 1918. The psychological overtones are intense but given the abstract, unreal nature of opera, it all just worked and, as my friend Jeremy said afterward, there is no other artistic medium that gets away with this.

*Ok, here's what happened. The seventh door is unlocked and there is a perfectly still lake of blood. A woman dressed in a bridal gown, soaked in blood, slowly rises from the lake and begins to walk across the stage. She is followed in sequence by two other women in bridal gowns, and all three join Bluebeard as he sings about how much he loved his previous wives. Judith sees that each bloody bride is more beautiful than she, but terror strikes her when Bluebeard now calls her the most beautiful of them all. The three bloody brides then descend again into the pool of blood and disappear. Judith begs to be spared but is sucked down into the pool of blood and disappears as the seventh door closes. The final line of the opera is uttered. "All shall be darkness, darkness, darkness."

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