You don’t want to miss Bluebeard’s Castle
By Peter Alexander
Conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra opened their Colorado Music Festival concert last night (July 23) at the Chautauqua Auditorium with a dramatically and aurally spectacular performance of Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird.
And that was before the second half of the concert.
Zeitouni’s careful control of dynamics lends itself to the atmospheric opening of The Firebird, and it intensified the shock at the orchestral thunderclap that opens “The Infernal Dance of the Subjects of Katschei.” Audience members near me literally jumped at the opening percussion salvo.
Contrasting with the dreamy opening, Zeitouni pushed the tempo of the “Infernal Dance” to—and just barely beyond—the safe limits for a full orchestra. This was an exciting, if risky choice, that just barely paid off in performance Thursday night.
After that, the music died to a whisper for the magical entrance of the horn solo at the beginning of the “Lullaby of the Firebird” (better known as the Berceuse). Zeitouni again went for a dramatic tempo, this one at the opposite extreme. The slow buildup from the beginning of the Lullaby to the Finale only added to the magic.
All of the soloists played beautifully, but special notice should be given to the bassoon solos, played with both warmth and expression by section principal Glenn Einschlag. He deserved his solo bow and ovation after the performance.
The focal point of the concert—and one of the focal points of the entire summer—came after intermission, when Zeitouni and the orchestra presented a stunning performance of Bartók’s early opera Bluebeard’s Castle, with baritone Samuel Ramey and soprano Krisztina Szabó in the roles of Duke Bluebeard and his bride, Judith.
Zeitouni was clearly excited when he announced this performance last February. And just last week he reiterated that the opera was for him personally “so important to share with the CMF audience.” It is a powerful work, and one that is not heard often enough. With a score full of colorful cinematic effects, describing both the setting and the inner thoughts of the characters, it is one of Bartók’s most accessible works.
If there is any opera that prospers in a concert performance, it is Bluebeard’s Castle. Because this is psychological drama, the majority of the emotional expression falls to the orchestra, revealing what is going on within the characters in a way that their words do not. In fact, it is not a large leap from Bartók’s opera to the music you hear in any psycho-thriller from Hollywood. Many film composers have learned from the score.
For example, when Bluebeard sings to Judith of the final doors, “You don’t know what’s behind them,” the vocal part is fairly straightforward but the orchestra reveals all of the turmoil within his mind. Or when Judith sings “Give me the key because I love you,” you hear her feelings—both love and the fear she denies—in the orchestra. Putting such music in the hands of a virtuoso orchestra and bringing it up onstage only enhances its impact.
One of the true operatic stars of his generation, Ramey is known for the role of Duke Bluebeard, which he seems to have inside his skin. This is not a difficult role to act—on the surface Bluebeard seems almost passive as Judith demands that door after door be opened, and that nothing be hidden from her—but it takes a serious vocal artist to convey Bluebeard’s strength and underlying despair. If he has lost a little to age, Ramey remains a commanding presence. His strong, dark sound is still well suited to the role, and it was a treat to hear him sing one of his signature roles here in Colorado.
Szabó is not well known in this country, but the Hungarian-Canadian soprano is ideally cast as Judith. She sings with beauty of tone and great intensity, as Judith becomes ever more desperate to penetrate Bluebeard’s secrets. She is obviously much younger than Ramey, which can be heard in their voices. But this is a symbolic opera, so the difference between them represents not age but the psychological gap between the world-weary duke in his gloomy castle, and the woman who still believes that her love can solve all problems.
But is it the orchestra that carries the emotional weight, and in this respect the performance was powerful and often electrifying. The opening of the fifth door, when Bluebeard’s entire kingdom is revealed to an astonished Judith and the lights blazed brilliantly within the hall, was thrilling. But the thrill was created by more than Bartók’s craggy chords and the full sound of the Festival Orchestra brass.
That moment—in some ways the musical climax of the opera—was prepared by all that went before it. Bartók’s brilliant orchestra effects from scene to scene provide the raw materials, but Zeitouni’s control of the musical flow, and the orchestra’s execution, led carefully and inexorably to that moment. From the opening portrayal of the gloomy castle, through the remarkable musical effects that accompany the opening of each door, down to the slow recession into silence at the end, every scene and every contrasting mood were tellingly conveyed.
Recognition should be given to Chris Christoffersen, who not only sponsored the performance with his wife, Barbara, but also served as an eloquent narrator before both works on the program.
A few minor points: stage lighting was used to enhance to mood of the different rooms in Bluebeard’s Castle. For the most part this was very effective; why then was red lighting used for the second room, Bluebeard’s Armory, when red light representing blood should stream from the first room, the Torture Chamber? The Armory calls for yellowish-red light, representing the bronze armor and weapons. As performed last night, the Torture Chamber was represented with no particular lighting effect at all, while the music for the opening of that room is so dramatic and eerie that it calls out for a lighting effect. This was an opportunity missed.
I suppose that it is inevitable that the singers would be miked, with the orchestra sharing the stage with them and not set below in a pit. For the most part, any amplification was not noticeable, but I still find it regrettable when opera singers, trained to fill a house with the sound of their voice, are artificially amplified.
The projecting of the text above the stage was essential to the audience’s understanding of what they were hearing. But I have very mixed feelings about the Gorey-esque drawings that sometimes accompanied the text. I can’t see what they contributed to the understanding of the story, and to my taste they were somewhere between crude and too cute. I expect others enjoyed them.
And finally: could someone give Ramey seven rusty old keys to hand to Szabó? I know this is a concert performance, but the miming of handing over keys is more awkward than not, and a few props would be less distracting than the singers’ empty clasped fists.
Such quibbles aside, all of Boulder should be flocking to Chautauqua tonight. It is a rare opportunity to hear a great and influential work, and to hear it performed at the very highest level. You don’t want to miss it.
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Tickets to the July 24 performance of the Firebird/Bluebeard’s Castle performance at the Colorado Music Festival are available here.
NOTE: Edited for clarity on July 24.