Bluebeard’s Castle, New World Symphony

Judith’s soliloquy builds up to be both a prÈcis 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

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

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

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

image_description=Bela Bartok in bronze sculpture by Hungarian Andras Beck
product_title=BÈla BartÛk: Bluebeard’s Castle; Quartet No. 6 for Strings, BB 119 (1939)
product_by=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.
product_id=Above: Bela Bartok in bronze sculpture by Hungarian Andras Beck