Opera Review: Haunting World of 'Bluebeard's Castle'

Shirit Lee Weiss has at her disposal Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures, the lighting design of Eyal Levy, and a wonderful musical team.

Michael Mayer 58 (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
Michael Mayer 58
(photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
With only one scene and two singing characters, putting together a convincing performance of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle is a daunting challenge for any opera director. Even the original stage directions of librettist Bela Balasz are minimalistic.
Luckily, director Shirit Lee Weiss has at her disposal Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures, the lighting design of Eyal Levy, which complements and amplifies Chihuly’s pieces, and a musical team capable of bringing the hour-long piece to life.
Originally commissioned for a concert performance in Seattle, the sculptures’ use in Tel Aviv on Thursday night was their world premiere in a full-stage production.
The opera’s plot begins with Bluebeard bringing Judit into his dark castle, whence she begins asking him what lies behind seven closed doors which are the only stage props. Judit also says she wants to open the doors to bring some light into the castle.
At first reluctant, he eventually gives her keys to the first five doors.
Behind them she finds what one might expect from a prince living in a castle – and by extension – the attributes of the things a typical male would be involved in throughout his life: A torture chamber and an armory (vanquishing one’s enemies and engaging in battles), a treasury (material wealth), a private garden and a vista of his kingdom (real estate).
With each door that opens, more light enters the castle; a recurrent motif is blood, which colors the light red and covers everything, underlining the dire consequences of Judit’s fatal curiosity.
Behind the sixth door, to which she gets the key only after being warned it will bring darkness into the hall, Judit finds a silvery lake of tears. Bluebeard pleads with her to leave the seventh door shut. Eventually, when she gets the key and opens it, out come three of Bluebeard’s former wives (women he met at dawn, day and dusk). He tells Judit she is his woman of the night and at the end of the opera she disappears behind the door with the three other women.
The Bluebeard legend is known in many versions. In the version by Charles Perrault, on which the opera is based, Judit’s brothers save her from the murderous prince’s saber. Balasz and Bartok put a twist in the plot: Judit at the end wears the “cloak of midnight” almost of her own volition, and nobody comes to her rescue. Indeed, Bluebeard almost appears the victim: He warns her repeatedly that this will be the outcome of opening the doors, and from the beginning asks her whether she is afraid and if she has heard any rumors about him.
The plot deliberately avoids moral judgment of the characters. A spoken narration at the beginning (by Alex Ansky in this performance) specifically tells the audience to look beyond the immediate surface of things.
BARTOK WAS only 30 when he composed Bluebeard’s Castle, and while the lush, romantic music is not typically Bartok, it is by no means an unripe work. Bluebeard’s Castle has come to be a canonical masterpiece of 20th-century music and one can be thankful that this performance, the first stage production here, finally arrived.
Chihuly’s sculptures are resplendent in their colors, all the more so when lit against the black stage, and the shapes are evocative but never literal. While the overall style is minimalistic, his works add a dazzling richness.
Vladimir Braun and Svetlana Sandler are excellent in the roles of Bluebeard and Judit, which call for voices with a wide range of expression.
The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion was excellent under the baton of maestro Ilan Volkov.
Only two caveats come to mind: First is the lack of a wind machine in the orchestra (if there was one, it was inaudible). The instrument is used only twice in the score, but its effect is crucial.
Secondly, the choice of program; Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder sounded out of place as the opener.
A thematic connection between the two pieces made by the program notes seems tenuous at best. Supposedly patrons would feel cheated paying the full price of a ticket and getting only an hour’s-worth of music; by the end of the opera, Mahler’s song-cycle was all but forgotten, and forgettable it is not.