Performance Review: San Francisco Symphony’s Production of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”


Michelle DeYoung and Alan Held accepting applause at the end of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”



by Christopher Bernard

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
An opera by Béla Bartók (libretto by Béla Balász)
A concert staging by the San Francisco Symphony

Sad stories bring forth shudders of delight.

— Bluebeard, in Béla Balász’s libretto for “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

Once in a great while, a rare and humbling experience happens that can be summed up only with that much-abused word I usually try to avoid, unless I am discussing chocolate chip cookies: “awesome.” Such was the San Francisco Symphony’s production of Béla Bartók’s only opera, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” over the June 22nd weekend. I went twice; the first time I was so unprepared for the experience of an opera I thought I knew that I was left shaken and spent the next two hours walking it off through the late-night streets.

Performed in a half-staged version on a small area behind the orchestra and utilizing an array of vividly designed video projections, with expanded brass and full organ for the opera’s staggering climax, the concert, promising on paper, and far surpassing the promise in reality, proved to be one of the musical season’s peak moments indeed. An operatic season already flourishing with three brilliantly welcomed productions across the road at the San Francisco Opera, had, for a trio of nights, a fourth.

There are a number of versions of the Bluebeard legend, which first appeared in Perrault’s Mother Goose Tales. In the legend, Bluebeard has brought his latest, and probably last, wife to his castle, a windowless monument to male isolation, where she finds seven locked doors that, despite Bluebeard’s warnings, she insists on opening, with predictably tragic results. In most versions, the last door reveals the dead bodies of Bluebead’s previous wives. But not all of the tale’s versions involve gore – the version Bartók and his librettist Béla Balász created finds the wives in a state perhaps worse than death: a twilight of half-suspended animation, undead but unalive, immured inside a tomb within the tomb of Bluebeard’s castle, where Judith will also be buried in the end.

Bluebeard’s futile protests that have so little effect on his wife’s compulsive probing suggest a number of questions, above all whether or not he planned to send Judith to the conjugal dungeon from the beginning – or whether she only ends up there as a result of her obstinate, and in the end suicidal, need to know. For her fatal husband seemsto hope – even, however weakly, as in a dream he can’t wake from, to struggle and strive, haplessly – to redeem himself from his conjugal fatality; it is not something he accedes to easily, and certainly not something he rejoices in. His evil is a cause of ceaseless suffering for him; it is no occasion for joy. In the end, despite all of his struggling, he is defeated by the perversities, the love of self-destruction and self-defeat, of human nature, his own and Judith’s.

In its brief hour-long span, Bartok’s opera contains a profound contemplation of the eternal gulf, the willful misunderstandings and warring needs that separate the sexes: in the Hungarians’ Bluebeard we find, not a refined sadist or the monster of myth, a Gilles de Rais (the grotesque legend’s original), but an archetypal male, prisoner of his pride, of his grasping for an impossible autonomy, in conflict with a barely acknowledged need to love and be loved – a need that is poisoned by his equal and opposing need to reign, dominate and conquer. And in Judith, though clearly in the weaker position, we find an archetypal female driven by a self-destructive need to ignore every warning her despairing consort gives her, as this Bluebeard tries, futilely, to overcome his own need to dominate; to win, not just Judith’s love for him, but his ability to love her. In the past his love has always turned poisonously into a need to possess, to turn his wives, indeed anything alive and with a will of its own, into half-dead things – one of the perennial curses of masculinity.

What we see, starkly presented, is the war between masculine pride and will to conceal and conquer, on the one hand, and, on the other, feminine probing and the will to uncover, reveal and control. The result is a misery on both sides: equal folly, if not always equal fault. The end, like the beginning, is an impenetrable darkness that seems to lie forever between the sexes, a darkness that has no more powerful a metaphor than Bartók’s brave and honest opera, which excuses no one. Impenetrable indeed? The opera leaves the question open, but offers no easy solutions.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was luminous as Judith, and bass-baritone Alan Held turned Bluebeard into a profoundly tragic figure. DeYoung’s voice carried more effectively than Held’s to the rafters, though both voices carried with equal clarity to the orchestra floor. (Oddly, the sound of the woodwinds was clearer in the upper balcony, where the terracing of sound is also noticeably sharper. Davies Hall’s acoustics are a little fickle still.)

The projections, which probed the underlying psychology as door after door was unlocked, played always handsome, sometimes gorgeous, variations on the story’s themes; they were designed with a highly imaginative hand by Nick Corrigan. The overall staging was directed to lean and powerful effect by Neil Hillel.

A note on the projections: they were not always as effective when seen upstairs; important parts of them were invisible in the upper balcony, and what I could see of others (in particular the “treasure” room sequence) sometimes looked cheesy; their effect in the orchestra seats, however, I found completely engrossing. Annoyingly, the big climax, when the fifth door was unlocked and all of the lights in the hall suddenly blaze to momentarily blinding effect, was, paradoxically, more effective in the balcony precisely because the audience there was not blinded but could imagine the effect below: as most horror film directors learn, at the right moment imagining blows seeing completely out of the water. Ultimately, there was no ideal spot to both see and hear the goings-on onstage. Such problems might have sunk a less compelling production, but it’s a tribute to this one that, by the end, they were completely forgotten.

The opera opened with a brief spoken monologue, not presented in most productions; local actor Ken Ruta made an excellent case for it – indeed, the monologue, and his measured voicing of it, demonstrated how a short, quiet introduction can cast a deeply illuminating light over all that follows.

The San Francisco Symphony rose to the occasion, and more, under the tight, searching conducting of Michael Tilson Thomas. The cheering ovations the audience gave them at both performances I attended were certainly never more deserved.

The concert opened with the first piano concerto composed by Bartók’s fellow Hungarian, Liszt. Everyone tucked into Liszt’s florid bombast gamely enough; the diaphanous middle sections, which highlighted the symphony’s woodwinds, were woven with special gracefulness by soloist Jeremy Denk, who tossed off Liszt’s stormy demands elsewhere with élan.

But what haunted the mind for the rest of the night was the tragedy that followed.

Christopher Bernard is a novelist, poet, and critic. He is author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins and co-editor of the online arts magazine Caveat Lector.

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