It’s great when you can say, in Buffalo, that the opera was the place to be.
On Wednesday, it was.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s semi-staged production of Bela Bartok’s brooding “Bluebeard’s Castle,” sung in Hungarian with English subtitles, packed them in. An all-ages crowd filled Kleinhans Music Hall, leaving only a few empty seats far in the back.
There was another draw, of course, besides the drama itself. That was the glass by popular artist Dale Chihuly – weird, iridescent sculptures that would be revealed as the opera unfolded.
The sculptures sat hidden in black containers that looked ominous spread across the Kleinhans stage. They added greatly to the ambience as BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta told us of what was to come.
Falletta’s talk did not explain the drama as much as it set the stage for it. I wish she had explored her thoughts on Bartok’s music, observations she had shared earlier with The Buffalo News. But she talked about several theories about the opera that debated about who was the victim. Is it the young woman – that is, did Bluebeard set out from the start to add her to his doomed collection of former wives? Or was the victim Bluebeard? Maybe Bluebeard was genuinely in love with his latest bride, and hoped that he had finally found someone who would love him without prying into his secrets.
Her quiet voice was tremendously atmospheric and primed the crowd for the psychological drama. So did a Victorian gentleman who came out afterward and introduced it, even if he was a bit redundant. Then we were off.
Mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung is in the forefront of the crop of young opera singers and she had a rich Wagnerian tone. As Bluebeard, Charles Robert Austin was, as Bluebeard should be, ominous but also attractive. He carried off with panache lines that translated to: “Blood is cool as it oozes freely.” (Bartok’s librettist didn’t pull punches.)
Confidence is part of every opera singer’s job description, and yet my admiration for these two abounded. To memorize this meandering music, to carry it off with passion and momentum, that cannot be easy.
Strong as they were – and it seemed as if they were amplified – the singers were drowned out now and then. There was probably no way around that, unless we could have utilized the orchestra pit, which would have muffled the musicians a little. Bartok’s orchestration in this piece is so heavy and layered. He calls for extra musicians and throughout the opera, the brass has pride of place.
But there was a payoff to the imbalance in that you felt the full wallop of the score. From where I sat – which was the absolute last row, way up in the balcony – it was thrilling. Kleinhans does right by you, wherever you sit, and there are some who say that the top is the tops. Wednesday, I was ready to believe that. The blasting brass! The timpani’s thump of doom! You not only heard them, you felt them.
Good thing that glass didn’t shatter.
Chihuly’s sculptures were impressive even from what I heard one woman call “the oxygen seats.” At first the wildly colored creations looked small, framed in those little compartments, and I found myself wishing I could see a big vista of glass. Up close, they must have really been something to see. It must have been terrifying as Judith opened those doors one by one.
And yet with a little imagination, the glass had a haunting effect no matter where you were. The black backgrounds could make it seem as if you were looking into endless darkness. The sculpture suggesting Bluebeard’s kingdom was especially effective in that regard. You could see the twinkling glass as a city in the night, stretching into the distance.
It was fun to see three local singers – soprano Sebnem Mekinulov, contralto Suzanne Fatta, and rising star Katy Miner – as Bluebeard’s former wives. They didn’t sing, and you could argue about why the wives had to be played by singers. But it added drama.
The production fell short a few times when it elicited giggles from the crowd.
The castle is supposed to be sighing, and to suggest this, the women of the BPO sighed from behind the sculptures. That should have worked, but it didn’t; it sounded kind of cartoonish.
The crowd also cracked up at one point late in the opera when Judith, after Bluebeard begs her to kiss him, asks to open another door. An opera like this shouldn’t draw a laugh. If it does, something needs fixing. But I’m not sure whose fault that glitch was. Was it Bartok’s – did he draw the opera’s simple premise out too long? Or was it something in the timing?
Whatever the case, an experiment like this is bound to have a couple of glitches. Overall, it was a big success. I think the memory will haunt us, in the best sense.