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Chihuly glass landscapes show goth opera in chilling new light

“Bluebeard’s Castle,” the only opera by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, is a brief, gripping journey into the dark.

A handsome older nobleman, Bluebeard, brings his young bride, Judith, to his sunless, forbidding castle. There are seven sealed doors, and he wants to keep them shut. But she demands that, one after another, he open them.

It is a haunting opera, perfect for the darkness that descends in October. And the production of “Bluebeard’s Castle” on stage at Kleinhans Music Hall on Wednesday is even more transfixing.

That is because the sets are glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly.

Chihuly’s show in 1998 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery drew so many patrons – over 86,000 – that it shattered records and is still remembered. He created the sculptures for “Bluebeard’s Castle” in 2007 for the Seattle Symphony, at the invitation of then-Music Director Gerard Schwarz.

Seven landscapes of glass suggest the seven locked rooms in Bluebeard’s castle. “Teardrops” and “Reichenbach Mirrored Balls” form the Lake of Tears. “Red Reeds” glow ominously in the torture chamber. “Crystal Clubs” adorn a treasury. “Tiger Lilies and Paintbrushes” suggest the blood-stained weapons in an armory.

It’s costly and cumbersome to transport huge, fragile glass sculptures – the BPO wangled a state grant – and so the show has been seen in only four cities: Seattle, Milwaukee, Wis.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Tel Aviv, Israel.

This is "Door 4, The Garden, 9 Ferns &17 Trumpet Flowers." This is the only the fifth time the opera will be performed with Chihuly's set, which premiered with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2007.  (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

This is "Door 4, The Garden, 9 Ferns &17 Trumpet Flowers." This is the only the fifth time the opera will be performed with Chihuly's set, which premiered with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2007. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Now, JoAnn Falletta, the BPO’s music director, is exploring “Bluebeard’s Castle” for the first time. Because the performance is one of the BPO’s “Know the Score” concerts, she will be sharing her insights beforehand with the audience.

“I’m so excited,” she said. “It’s like a revelation. This piece is extraordinary. It’s an amazing sort of psychological piece.”

Valerian Ruminski, the executive director of Nickel City Opera, is directing the production. He jumped at the invitation, he said, in part because he plans one day to sing Bluebeard himself.

“The music is kind of glacial,” he said. “It’s very beautiful music. It’s very dense, very layered.” It calls for a larger orchestra than the BPO, so musicians have to be added. “This is Bartok’s only opera. It’s one reason it’s not done so often.”

Clues in the music

The naive young woman and the man with secrets are a couple who have haunted artists through the ages. “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Phantom of the Opera” give the pair a supernatural edge. “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” were both about young women in love with men with forbidding mansions and closed doors.

This is "Door Two, The Armory, 10 Tiger Lilies & 15 Paintbrushes." (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

This is "Door Two, The Armory, 10 Tiger Lilies & 15 Paintbrushes." (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

Bluebeard’s bride, in Bartok’s opera, longs to be his sunshine, to light his castle and his life. It’s easy to think of “Wuthering Heights,” and Isabella Linton’s desperate plea: “Heathcliff, let me love you. I can make you happy.”

Richard Wagner must have been a man with secrets. “Lohengrin,” “Tannhauser” and “The Flying Dutchman” all center on women paired with men with secrets. The uneasy, shifting harmonies and evocative orchestration of “Bluebeard’s Castle” suggest that Bartok was influenced by Wagner and, in turn, Richard Strauss.

“He was influenced by the music of Strauss and Debussy,” Falletta said. “I hear a lot of Kodaly in it,” she added. The libretto for “Bluebeard’s Castle” was originally intended for Bartok’s countryman, Zoltan Kodaly. “It’s so folklike,” Falletta explained.

Bartok builds effects into the music. When Judith opens the door of Bluebeard’s hall of treasures, the music turns metallic and glittering. When she discovers the huge garden, the score broadens out into romantic themes.

Falletta has studied Bartok’s use of key changes, rubato and Hungarian folk themes.

“It’s so chilling,” she said. “We see Judith at the beginning – she loves him, she’ll do anything to brighten up the castle. She doesn’t know what to do, it’s so dark and awful. There is this touching moment. He says, ‘Judith, wouldn’t you be happier at your fiancé’s castle, with roses and sunlight? Maybe you should go home.’ But she loves him.”

Opera challenges the listener to read between the lines. The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who relished the role of Bluebeard, was quoted as saying that often, the music says the opposite of what Bluebeard and Judith are saying. Falletta, too, looks to the music for cues and clues.

She pointed out the significance of one majestic moment when the music signals a sea change. It takes place when Judith unlocks the door to Bluebeard’s vast, magnificent kingdom.

“He shows her the kingdom, the mountain and rivers. Up until that she’s talking with excitement, about the garden and the jewels, though she’s dismayed when she sees it’s covered with blood. He shows her his domain, It’s a highlight – the orchestra is blaring, and he is saying, ‘I’m giving this to you.’ but for some reason she becomes frightened and starts to withdraw. She becomes very withdrawn and very quiet. It’s a turning point when she realizes he has so much power that she becomes fearful.”

‘It draws you in’

Because “Bluebeard’s Castle” centers on just two singers, the teams who have tackled it are memorable. Samuel Ramey sang it shirtless opposite Jessye Norman at the Metropolitan Opera. History has seen several husband-and-wife teams sing the opera. Fischer-Dieskau sang it on occasion with his wife, Julia Varady. Christa Ludwig sang it with her husband at the time, Walter Berry.

This is "Door Five, The Domains, 27 Herons and Marlins & Neo Reeds." (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

This is "Door Five, The Domains, 27 Herons and Marlins & Neo Reeds." (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

On Wednesday, Bluebeard will be sung by Charles Robert Austin and Judith by Michelle DeYoung. Bluebeard’s former wives, who put in an eerie appearance at the end, are Sebnem Mekinulov, Suzanne Fatta and Katie Miner.

The principals can bring a lot of their own drama to the performance, and Falletta wonders which direction DeYoung and Austin will take.

“She’s sung it many times,” Falletta said. “I’m wondering if she’ll be innocent, or maybe manipulating a bit? And what will he be like? Will he be a gentleman who was forced to give into the tragedy, or is he as we suspect?”

Bluebeard’s intentions in the opera are eternally debated.

“The big question at the end is, why?” Falletta said.

The suspense builds throughout the opera, somewhat as in an Edgar Allan Poe story.

“When she discovers the torture chamber, that’s a big clue to get out of there. But she keeps persisting. She wants to know, does he love her? She asks, ‘How did you love your other wives?’ She’s so innocent. He wants her to leave the doors alone, but she can’t. She has to know who he is.”

Falletta said that the librettist, Bela Belazs, wrote the libretto in musical rhythms.

“He structured it in poetry that had basic rhythm of Hungarian folk songs. Most of it is in rhyming, almost hypnotic rhythm. It’s really chilling, too. You’re almost hypnotized by the singing, by the way the phrases repeat. It’s very hypnotizing. It’s strange. It draws you in. You know you’re not in the real world.”

Ruminski, with his man’s viewpoint, sometimes thinks the opera’s not that far from reality.

“You see it around us. Power couples,” he said. “Bill and Hillary. How much do you know? Maybe she let him philander. Pavarotti and his wife. It’s clear there was fooling around there. To get as simple as possible, there’s the man with a cellphone and he has texts on it. The girlfriend wants to read the texts. Should he let her? She’s guessing he has a secret.

“ ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ is all about that. It’s about a modern issue: How much is a man willing to reveal? How much does a woman really want to know?

“And at what point does it become an explosion?”

[See Buffalo News photographer Derek Gee's gallery of Chihuly's sculptures]

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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