As best as I can remember, Boston hasn’t seen a full-stage production of Béla Bartók’s 1911 opera A kékszakállú herceg vára (“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”) since Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston did it in 1969. So I was looking forward to this spring’s offering. Boston Lyric Opera’s Bluebeard’s Castle is not quite what I was hoping for: the opera is being given in translation, and with a reduced orchestra. As presented at the Terminal @ Flynn Cruiseport Boston, with Ryan McKinny in the title role and Naomi Louisa O’Connell as Judith, it’s an indispensable Bluebeard; I wouldn’t have missed it. But the wait for the real thing goes on.
There are reasons the opera isn’t staged as often as one might wish. The libretto, by Béla Balázs, is in his and the composer’s native Hungarian, an unfamiliar language to most opera singers as well as to most audiences. The score calls for a very large orchestra. And at just one hour, the piece doesn’t fill out a theater evening (though it’s fine for CD). In her 1967 Opera Company of Boston production, Sarah Caldwell coupled it with Bartók’s A csodálatos mandarin (“The Miraculous Mandarin”); two years later, she added his other pantomime ballet, A fából faragott királyfi (“The Wooden Prince”), to the program. For its first block of concert performances, under Seiji Ozawa in 1980, the BSO preceded the opera with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2. James Levine accompanied it in 2006–2007 with Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 and in 2011 with Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex; in 2016, Charles Dutoit chose to begin with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39.
BLO addresses the language problem by performing the opera in an English version by Peter Bartók, the composer’s younger son. Translation is not an ideal solution; Balázs’s Hungarian has weight and bite, and his trochaic tetrameter affords a translator little room to maneuver. But English has been shown to work. As early as 1960, we had a recording from Eugene Ormandy, and in 2011 the BU Fringe Festival offered a creditable English-language production. As for the large orchestra, BLO music director David Angus has substituted a chamber version that German conductor Eberhard Kloke created in 2018.
BLO’s solution to the opera’s short measure is more novel; stage director Anne Bogart frames it with four songs by Alma Schindler Mahler, the Vier Lieder that were published in 1915, all sung by O’Connell in the original German. What’s more, the production is preceded by a half-hour salon in which pianist Yukiko Oba plays works by women composers drawn from a list that includes Amy Beach, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Ethel Smyth, Nadia and Lili Boulanger, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Shirley Graham Dubois, Margaret Bonds, and Florence Price.
At Wednesday’s opening performance, the salon experience misfired. The space was nicely laid out, the tables were attractive, the bar offered specialty cocktails. I saw no mention of the salon in the printed program, but ticketholders had clearly been informed; by 6:30 a festive crowd had already gathered. Just after 7 Oba arrived and began playing the grand piano in the middle of the space. The buzz of conversation continued; it was difficult to hear Oba, let alone appreciate her interpretations.
At 7:15, BLO general director and CEO Bradley Vernatter introduced himself, thanked everyone for coming, and announced that the house was now open. People started to make for the theater space while Oba continued with works that ranged from Schumann to Price, Lili Boulanger, Beach, and finally Bonds. Surely it would make more sense for Vernatter to introduce Oba at 7 and explain to everyone that she’ll be playing works by underappreciated women composers and not just lounge music.
The theater space itself is impressive. The squarish thrust stage, most of it taken up by a huge platform bed, occupies the center; all around is a luminous black surface that anticipates Bluebeard’s lake of tears. Overhead there’s tube lighting and a large gray form that suggests a boulder or a body bag; it’s enigmatic and intimidating. The audience sits on three sides, with the orchestra at the rear. Seated at small tables along the stage perimeter are the same six women in masks and ball gowns who were seen milling about the salon; it’s now clear they’re meant to represent Bluebeard’s previous wives. There’s another grand piano downstage left, and that’s where the performance begins, with O’Connell singing and Oba playing.
Alma Schindler had studied with Josef Labor and Alexander von Zemlinsky prior to meeting Gustav Mahler in 1901 and had written sonatas, études, and fugues as well as songs, but it’s the songs that have survived. Gustav demanded that she stop composing, and she did until he relented, shortly before his death in 1911, so her situation of giving up everything for her new husband wasn’t so different from Judith’s in the opera. Perhaps it’s Bogart’s thought that the Vier Lieder give us insight into Judith’s inner world. “Ansturm” (“Storm”) appeals to the beloved not to be angry if the singer’s desire bursts darkly beyond its bounds; “Waldseligkeit” (“Woodland Bliss”) finds the singer alone in the woods, “entirely myself, entirely yours.” The piano accompaniment to this pair is Alma’s; the English surtitle translations are O’Connell’s. Wednesday’s performances were intense and forthright, though O’Connell sacrificed a degree of enunciation in the process. She then put a hand on Oba’s shoulder and guided the pianist back to the rear, where she joined the orchestra. Set to Julian Reynolds’s chamber orchestration, “Erntelied” (“Harvest Song”) followed, with its healing wine and white sails gliding in the wind and migratory birds among the golden clouds. That was the prelude to the opera.
Balázs’s libretto begins with a riddling prologue spoken by a minstrel or bard in which the audience is asked whether the tale is outside or inside, on stage or in our heads. The opera itself has just two characters, Judith (recalling the Biblical character who slew Holofernes) and Bluebeard. Balázs’s Judith is not the “guilty” wife of Charles Perrault’s 1697 tale who unlocks the door to Bluebeard’s forbidden room and discovers the bodies of his previous wives. She’s a woman who has defied her family and left her bridegroom to marry Bluebeard and come to his dank, gloomy castle, and once there, she persuades her reluctant husband to open, one by one, the seven locked doors in that castle. Behind the first six are revealed a torture chamber, an armory, a treasury, a garden, a kingdom, and a lake; we seem to be passing from darkness into light, but there’s blood everywhere, even on the roses in the garden, and the lake is formed from Bluebeard’s tears. An increasingly distraught Judith guesses what’s behind the seventh door, but she’s wrong: his previous wives are alive, locked away in his castle/brain, no longer outside but inside. Defeated, she walks into the seventh room, the door closes behind her, and she joins the other three in living death. Bluebeard himself is swallowed up by eternal night.
On some older recordings, the prologue, barely two minutes long, is omitted. That may have had to do with LP space restrictions, but its absence is always unfortunate. The prologue is traditionally spoken by male actor; here O’Connell delivers it, Bogart framing what she’s called “the most male-centered opera ever written” with women’s wisdom.
Both the English version and the reduced orchestration work out better than I expected. Peter Bartók’s 2005 translation, part of a new edition of the opera, draws from and improves on an older version by Christopher Hassall. It’s not perfect. Judith’s first line in the Hungarian is “Megyek, megyek, Kékszakállú” (“I’m following, I’m following, Bluebeard”). “Kékszakállú” is four syllables, “Bluebeard” just two; like every other translation, Peter Bartók’s “I am with you, dearest Bluebeard,” has to insert an endearment that’s not in the original. But his version (to which the singers have made some modifications) eschews Hassall’s perplexing mix of period (“thou,” “thee,” and “thine”) and modern (“you” and “your”) English. And it respects Balázs’s rhetoric: where Hassall expands the repeated line “Minden virág neked bókol” into “Ev’ry flower nods to greet thee / Thou hast made them bud and blossom,” Peter Bartók has the simple “Every flower will revere you.”
As for the original orchestration, it calls for 40 players plus strings; Angus leads an ensemble of 29, with just 12 strings. I expected a chamber sound, but this line-up improbably conjures the power and grandeur of the original. At the opening of the fifth door, where a mighty blast of C-major solarity from the brass and organ proclaims the glory of Bluebeard’s realm, the synthesizer proves a surprisingly good substitute for the organ, though Wednesday I wished Angus had luxuriated in the moment. Much of the composer’s genius, of course, transcends orchestration, whether it’s the going-nowhere six-note ostinato that starts up in the lower strings when the castle door shuts behind Bluebeard and Judith, or the tightly closed semitone that recurs whenever Judith discovers blood.
This Bluebeard’s Castle begins with Bluebeard awakening in the platform bed and Judith stalking the perimeter, as if deciding whether to enter his castle. He sports a dark blue robe with gold designs; she has on a green ballgown similar to the ones the six previous wives wear. When she joins him in the bed, he puts his hands over her eyes, and there’s a big sigh as she opens the first door. The six wives get up, stroll about the perimeter, make hand gestures, dance, twirl. The libretto gives Bluebeard just three previous wives; Bogart’s six make for a fuller spectacle, and I suppose the number is immaterial. Lighting turns the pillows blood red for the torture chamber; the armory has red cording that looks like spaghetti; there’s green and yellow light for the treasury and the garden and confetti for flowers. By this point Bluebeard has shed his robe; after a brief pillow fight (so much for sexual tension), the couple snuggle in the bed until more blood turns up. Bluebeard’s lake of tears is a black sheet that suggests a shroud; the six wives make it billow, and Bluebeard crawls underneath. Then he removes his shirt and he and Judith wrap themselves in the sheet before he agrees to open the seventh door.
McKinny’s deep, easy bass-baritone and grave, sad manner make his Bluebeard a pleasure to hear and see. He’s conflicted between wanting to open up and knowing what will happen if he does; he repeatedly warns Judith that full disclosure is not a good idea; he’s poignant when the last door opens and he knows the battle is lost. O’Connell has the far more demanding role. Whereas Bluebeard is calm and stoic throughout, a mostly anguished Judith must sing without screaming. O’Connell has the vocal power, including that high C at the opening of the fifth door, and she phrases her lines with real thought, but Wednesday she was all high voltage, demanding rather than cajoling. Perhaps her Judith already suspects what’s behind the seventh door.
Once that door has opened, Bluebeard faces front and rhapsodizes over his three previous wives while Judith joins the other six in a back line behind him, all seven doing a gestural dance with their hands, then clasping hands, finally reaching up. Bluebeard does not disappear into the dark; he’s bathed in red light. Bartók’s score fades out and, almost without pause, Alma’s “Licht in der Nacht” (“Light in the Night”) begins, again in Reynolds’s chamber orchestration. All the wives surround Bluebeard in the bed; O’Connell’s Judith/Alma cradles him as she sings of a yellow star that comforted her when another’s heart wanted to forsake her. She ends by telling that heart to sleep, for it will hear no more voices. You’d think this odd role reversal would be anticlimactic, but in Bogart’s staging it isn’t.
MBTA access to the Terminal @ Flynn Cruiseport Boston is mostly via the Silver Line SL2 bus from South Station. I was expecting a bit of a wait Wednesday when the 90-minute (as advertised) evening ended; instead, an empty SL2 was waiting to take people back to South Station. This apparent bit of foresight from BLO and the MBTA was much appreciated. The “sold-out” run continues tonight, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.