The psychological mindset of Bluebeard
Believe it or not, the macabre story of Bluebeard has its origins in fact. In the 15th century, a nasty piece of work called Gilles de Retz was on trial for his life. The French nobleman had turned to alchemy and sorcery after squandering his fortune and, rumor had it, was indulging in Satanic rituals including the murder of over 100 children. He confessed and was executed, but the story lived on. Fast forward another couple of centuries and French fairytale writer Charles Perrault adapted the story, called his villain Barbe-Bleue, or Bluebeard, and changed the murderees to adult women he married and killed for their valuables and property.
Others have also cottoned on to the gruesome tale, and some have set it to music, none more effectively than Hungary’s Bela Bartok in 1911, in his Bluebeard’s Castle.
It’s this version, which was performed at Benaroya Hall the week of May 14, with symbolic sets designed by Dale Chihuly, the Seattle Symphony under laureate conductor Gerard Schwarz, and soloists bass-baritone Charles Robert Austin as Bluebeard and mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby as Judith, his fourth bride.
This was first performed under Schwarz at Benaroya in 2007, but is as fresh and compelling a second time around.
The orchestra plays behind a set of six black oblong pillars representing the walls of the castle, bricks projected on them. A preamble is spoken in Hungarian by the honorary Consul General of Hungary, Helen M Szabla, during which Judith in her wedding dress is looking around and Bluebeard, in a red brocade vest and frock coat, watches her. There is clearly love between the two.
Maultsby’s acting as Judith is a masterly portrayal. We see Judith as a fresh, rather excited but understandably nervous bride arriving at her new husband’s castle for the first time. She’s taken aback by its gloomy aspect and the damp walls, and begs to open all the doors to let in light. When he demurs, she demands, half scared but determined
That he allow her to do this, sure in her trust in her husband. Reluctantly he gives in, and as each ‘door’ is opened, the pillars swing around to reveal Chihuly’s eerie interpretations of the torture chamber, the weapons of war, the jewel room, the garden, the empire, the lake of tears, each one either red, or turning to red, the color of blood. More and more the naïve Judith continues wilfully as though she is pursuing a preordained conclusion, still scared, still determined. The last door reveals his previous wives, and she realizes she will join their fate.
It comes across as a psychological thriller, his warped view, her impending doom, and her light extinguished as she joins the other wives.
Austin has a superb voice, perfectly suited to this, and didn’t need to act much as Bluebeard, rather to react to Judith. Maultsby gave a riveting performance from start to finish, and her rich mezzo soared in Bartok’s music. The orchestra and Schwarz gave them excellent support without ever drowning their voices.
The concert began with the premiere of six Concert Arias from David Diamond’s unfinished opera The Noblest Game. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan sang these, bringing to life in her voice and demeanor the charcater of her protagonist, a widow feeling lost, and going back to the cheating ways she had before, selling herself to pay debts, finally realizing how alone she is. She’s not a very nice person, in Zetlan’s well-sung portrayal. The second aria catches the interest most, where the music reflects her defiance and anger.
Photo by Ben VanHouten.