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Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

Entering ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

Milwaukee Symphony ventures into Bartok’s classic

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The subterranean quality of Bartok’s ominous score for Bluebeard’s Castle, the dark harmonic undercurrent of his only opera, may seem surprisingly tame for those familiar with the shock waves of dissonant sound outbursts characterizing the Hungarian composer’s later works, where music spills boldly across a broad limitless tapestry like the splatter of a black-and-white Pollock canvas. Unlike Pollock, Bartok usually resolves his stunning splashes of brilliant sound into coherent climaxes rich in Hungarian folklore and almost sexual in erotic intensity, but Bluebeard’s Castle seems oddly reticent, relying on the subdued suspense that accompanies the unlocking of Bluebeard’s seven forbidden doors.

Bartok is the most structurally cogent of the great modern composers, and, as his first major work, Bluebeard’s Castle has not entirely shaken off the yoke of late German Romanticism. Not that the opera doesn’t contain its share of musical surprises, but the score—in keeping with the suspense of the story—doles out its store of musical treasures in incremental doses, echoing the inner sanctum of Bluebeard’s secret soul as he takes his new wife into the labyrinth of his “kingdom,” warning her that she must not be too curious about the secrets beyond the locked doors.

Written in 1908 and debuted in 1911, the opera is bound by a plot structure that sticks closely to the age-old legends. Bluebeard’s new wife, Judith, insists on opening all seven doors to his castle kingdom, inducing Bartok to fashion his score around each sequential unveiling. The unrelieved seriousness of the proceedings remains just this side of monochromatic monotony, while the solemnity of Bartok’s libretto doesn’t allow for the freer, scintillating buoyancy of the composer’s orchestral works yet to come.

The score is unnerving, eerily tame yet exciting, full of unsettling anticipation. Each opened door heightens a greater sense of dread as Bluebeard’s secrets unfold. The first door, introduced with a thunderous drumbeat, reveals a torture chamber stained with blood; the second opens onto a storehouse of bloodstained weapons, but here the orchestra comes alive with glistening percussion and woodwinds—the most exciting part of the score. The third door reveals a trove of great riches and the fourth a secret garden of great beauty, but the riches are also contaminated, and the garden contains blood flowers. The fifth door is the last that Bluebeard allows her to open. A magnificent, splendiferous introduction with a huge organ crescendo introduces the true magnitude of Bluebeard’s vast kingdom, but gathering reddish clouds cast their odd pallor over Judith’s anticipated sense of relief and place a shadow of doubt over what is yet to come. Bartok ushers in the scene with one of his most dramatic minor chord outbursts, which only heightens the sonority of doom that hovers over and enfolds the mysterious landscape of Bluebeard’s Kingdom. The score is a masterpiece of false anticipation.

As a sung work it remains surprisingly conservative. The vocal sections closely follow the plot without dominating the story line, but the ritualistic nature of the story and the unvarying tempo accompanying the revelation of each chamber makes the score seem more tonally unyielding, until the music gradually reveals its rich and subtly beguiling harmonic complexities. Bartok’s spare vocal lines vary subtly with rich melodic tonalities at the opening of each door, but the reticent scoring eerily prefigures the predestined fate of both characters. Part of the score’s suspenseful magic is that the voices never interfere with Bartok’s overreaching harmonic architecture.

Judith is forewarned about the last two doors, but she persists. The sixth door opens with a quiet glissando of muted woodwinds in Debussy-like tranquility, revealing silent, peaceful waters—the water of tears, in a darkened room. Only the forbidden seventh door remains. A quiet orchestral interlude reflects Judith’s greatest fear that she will find the former wives murdered, but her growing dread and the increasingly thunderous orchestral outburst quickly subside into astonishment.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performs Bluebeard’s Castle Oct. 30-31 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.


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