Short operas in a single act have always been born with an uncertain destiny, condemned, by the inertia of the operatic market, to an existence shared with other victims of their own conciseness. Some have become a common-law partner (the most recurring case is Pagliacci Y Rusticana Cavalleria); others came to the world almost as Siamese, although attempts to separate them are becoming more frequent (the three titles, perfectly independent, that make up the Trittico from Puccini); and most wander in limbo waiting for redeeming hands and supervening sisters, like Le rossignol from Stravinsky, L’Enfant et les sortilèges Y L’Heure espagnole from Ravel, Von heute auf Morgen Y Die glückliche Hand from Schönberg, Sancta Susanna Y Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen from Hindemith, Short life (his title already seemed premonitory of his fate) of our Manuel de Falla or, for not lengthening the list excessively, What next? from Elliott Carter. From time to time, strangers – or strangers – also appear among them, such as those already mentioned at the Paris Opera four years ago Sancta Susanna Y Rusticana Cavalleria. Set to mix churras with merines, it would have made much more sense to twin Hindemith’s transgressive opera with Suor Angelica (the second piece of Trittico Puccinian): the game is among nuns.
Barbazul Castle de Béla Bartók (impossible not to think of her today as a posthumous tribute to George Steiner) is another illustrious member of this list of victims. Sometimes she has been represented with unusual bed companions (Gianni Schicchi, the last opera of Trittico, in the Komische Oper in Berlin, with the stage direction of Calixto Bieito), but his argument and his stylistic idiosyncrasy make it very difficult to find plausible options on stage. Natural candidates are two works by Bartók himself: The wooden prince Y The wonderful mandarin. But it is a ballet and a pantomime, respectively, that is, purely instrumental music. Katie Mitchell has not shaken the pulse, however, when choosing as a couple or complement another Hungarian composition, the Orchestra Concert, placing it, yes, before of the opera, not later: the first – and only – opera of a Bartók who has just turned thirty preceded by his last orchestral composition, when he was a mortally ill man, exiled and dejected in the United States, far from old Europe Central whose folk legacy scrutinized, transcribed and recorded with his phonograph Edison.
To make this amazing match possible, baptized with the name of the female protagonist, Judith, Mitchell has had to strip Bluebeard’s Castle of what is probably its essential quality, the one that defines it and gives it almost its raison d’être: its solid attachment to symbolism, the artistic and literary movement that erupted strongly in Europe at the end of the 19th century. The symbolist opera par excellence is, of course, Pelléas et Mélisande from Debussy, which changed the history of the genre forever since its premiere in Paris in 1902. It put music word for word to the eponymous drama by Maurice Maeterlinck, a decisive influence on Béla Balázs, Bartók’s librettist, who wrote his text in the wake of others works of the Belgian in a single act that he knew well, as L’Intruse, Les Aveugles or Intérieur. Echoes of theatrical psychology of Ibsen, Strindberg or Hofmannsthal can also be easily detected in Balázs, but what primarily defines his text is the nakedness of the phrases and the conception of his drama as a kind of ambiguous, almost transparent envelope, which each viewer can Corporate differently. It is very significant, for example, that in the dramatis personae of the original play, Balázs will include, as a character, the castle itself, in addition to Bluebeard and Judith. Shortly after the drama began, the latter sings: “The castle is crying”, a prosopopeya that delves into the personification of an object that, in turn, symbolizes the soul of the aristocrat, in which she tries to penetrate stubbornly door after door .
The three are, in the end, symbols and the work is, in the background, the intrinsic and unquivable solitude of the human being. It also raises how he recounts, and much, the pain of love, and Bartók must have been attracted to both the subject and his unconventional approach due to his own recent personal biography. The violinist Stefi Geyer had not been able or wanted to correspond to her love passion, which left a deep wound that was difficult to heal in the composer, and that did not close even when, a few months later, she married Márta Ziegler, who was then Only sixteen years old. When Bartók sent him the composition that translated his love into music, the first of his two violin concerts, in which Geyer appears associated with a musical motif of third ascending, Bartók attached to the score a poem by Béla Balázs himself: “Mi my heart is bleeding, my soul is sick / I walked among humans / I loved with torment, with a love on fire / In vain, in vain! // No two stars are as far apart / as two human souls! ”Here it seemed to be already, in nuce, one of the themes, if not the main one, that parade through Bluebeard’s Castle. And that bleeding heart refers to the omnipresent musical motif throughout the first two thirds of the opera – how much do you see Judith is covered in blood – which Bartók translates with a short chromatic design as a true Leitmotiv Wagnerian, capable of transforming without ever losing his identity. Soul, love and blood form the essential thematic triangle of opera.
When it starts Bluebeard’s Castle We found their only two characters together. We soon learned that Judith, contrary to the opinion of her parents and her brother, and abandoning her fiancé, has decided to offer her eternal and unconditional love to whom rumors spread that she has killed and made her former women disappear. Why? For a symbolist like Balázs, the whys should not take away much sleep. A theater director like Katie Mitchell is interested, instead, finding – and offering – an answer. And the one he proposes is bold, wired and, depending on who judges it, great or failed. A police commissioner, Anna Barlow, investigates the case of several missing women. Discover that all of them worked for an agency of escorts mature, who shared common elements and their investigation ends up taking her to the suspect. To reach him, she herself signs up on the same contact webpage that he has previously used and the same driver who had led them to the house of the alleged psychopath is the one who also picks her up. The same and meticulous macabre ritual is repeated, but Barlow, unlike the previous women, and as a seasoned policeman, he does not fall into the trap of drinking a bottle of water in whose interior the accomplice at the service of Bluebeard has dissolved a powerful narcotic That is why she arrives consciously at the house and the opera begins just when she leaves the car parked in the garage of the lonely mansion-castle of the protagonist.
All these antecedents to explain what in the opera is unexplained, and what many may consider inexplicable, are told in a film shot ad hoc as if it were the chapter of a television series. There are no words, of course, because the images are accompanied – finally the circle is closed – of the interpretation from the pit, as a soundtrack, of the Orchestra Concert of Bartók. The first thing we see and hear is, therefore, the prequel, which literally puts us at the foot of the opera. The film, directed by Grant Gee, and starring the same singers who will perform Bluebeard’s Castle, closes with the car moving the detective through the streets of London to the house of the main suspect. The opera begins in that same car and the same garage, but now both are part of the real scenery, not filmed, which is discovered when the curtain rises.
Mitchell ignores, therefore, since he has no other choice, from the versed prologue of Béla Balázs, a kind of recitation of a bard that announces the story that we are going to see next. It does not matter, since there are six stanzas spoken about the purely instrumental introduction, which we do hear in their entirety during the first meeting of both characters, even two unknown to each other. From there, the mechanism warmed by Mitchell works very well and is extraordinarily executed: the spaces that are revealed to us gradually when Judith opens, one by one, the seven locked doors, after overcoming the initial reluctance of Bluebeard . The torture chamber becomes a small operating room that suggests a methodical Jack the Ripper; the armory, in a collection of modern weapons arranged in display cases almost as works of art; gold and jewels, in a vault; the secret garden, in a small domestic garden; Bluebeard’s domains are shown in images taken from the air, which Judith contemplates with virtual reality glasses; the lake full of tears is a bath with several showers; and the three previous women of Bluebeard (alive, not dead, as in the original Perrault story) are in the last room, decorated with large crosses, the fetishistic symbol of Bluebeard. The different colors that radiate in the original libretto each one of the rooms (essential again in a symbolist like Balázs) disappear, but everything fits, badly than well, and there are moments in which the temporal-spatial-conceptual transfer not only does not squeak, but it is almost credible.
The problem comes when these modern characters, Londoners, our contemporaries, sing and express themselves with that concise and irrevocably poetic language devised by Bálazs, those phrases repeatedly octosyllable, with a marked downward trend (to conform to the characteristic Hungarian prosody, which always accentuates the first syllable of each word), stripped, ambiguous, overflowing with symbols, an inevitable clash occurs. Neither the modern psychopath nor the shrewd detective seems capable of expressing himself that way. Not to mention, of course, the new ending (which many would call feminist) proposed by Mitchell, in which Judith goes from victim to executioner, and where death, whose presence flies over the entire opera without ever becoming tangible or visible, ends up having the last word. Balázs, however, saw it from the same perspective that his admired Maeterlinck had used and that the Hungarian had commented with these words: “Death is the hero of these dramas. But death is not here a sad and terrible end, no it is the pit and the skeleton, but the dark secret, that lurks. ” The Judith de Mitchell, pistol in hand, is more similar to the biblical character that beheads Holofornes, and that is also, by the way, the one that seduced many contemporary symbolists of Bartók and Balázs, and there are Gustav Klimt’s two paintings as spearhead. It is not at all casual that the second decided to give that name to his mysterious protagonist.
From the pit, Oksana Lyniv agrees with undoubted efficacy, but with an expressive asepsis that seems a faithful reflection of the neutral rooms of the Bluebeard’s mansion, illuminated with the cold light of the fluorescent tubes. Alternating the use and omission of the baton, Ukraine went through the Orchestra Concert almost on tiptoe, like a soundtrack of secondary importance with respect to the images of the film prequel, which seemed to concentrate and absorb all the attention of the public. With tempi generally fast, as if he wanted to avoid the great contrasts, turning the edges into curves, without the surprising humor notes in this terminal and evicted Bartók, leaving blunt what is not, in a little it seemed the Orchestra Concert to the multicolored mosaic and the masterpiece that is undoubtedly, despite the superb instrumental performance of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, which never seems to have a bad afternoon.
The opera had brighter moments, such as the bright burst of C major after the opening of the fifth door (and the tritone that is generated with the sustained Fa of the beginning and end of the opera is unavoidable), or the instrumental explosion that precedes to the long-awaited appearance of the previous women of Bluebeard, well graduated and determined by the director, aware that the opera starts from there to seclude itself until it closes in pianissimo with the sustained C almost inaudible that cello, double bass and timbale sound three times after we have heard the prologue designs again. No one can accuse Bartók of having composed a work that sought easy applause. But, during the short hour that the opera itself lasts, Lyniv also seemed excessively detached from the scene. It gave, yes, occasional entrances to singers, but it seemed immune to what was shown before our eyes, apparently concerned at all times to arrange with maximum orthodoxy and avoid any mismatch. Overall, his leadership lacked greater flexibility and suffered from an excessive desire for control. Unlike his mentor, Kirill Petrenko, who has been an assistant director, and who grows up in the pit with the encouragement of whatever happens on stage, Lyniv has never just established a fluid emotional transfer with what he has before his eyes .
Nothing negative can be said, but quite the opposite, of a first-line cast: John Lundgren and Nina Stemme. The two are long-standing Wagnerian singers: the baritone has been the Wotan of several of the Rings most important in recent years (Bayreuth, London, Munich itself, where last season he sang a magnificent Jack Rance in The fan of the West) and the soprano won the Birgit Nilsson Foundation award in 2018 as the most worthy heiress of her compatriot’s art. For both, sing Bluebeard’s Castle, shorter than a single act of Wagner’s great operas that they have performed so often, should be almost a relaxing snack. In addition, Bartók’s writing does not present great demands (writing for the voice was never a natural desire in Hungarian) and is almost always located in the comfort zone. Both are excellent actors and, under the wise and expert direction of Katie Mitchell, give credibility and vocal entity in outstanding doses to their respective characters. Too bad that the staging always places them singing a little apart from the proscenium, which, despite the imposing sound power of both, causes the voices to reach us a little detached from the orchestra. The Hungarians will have to pronounce on the correct diction of their beautiful and devilish language.
The book-program of the Bavarian State Opera, always brave and groundbreaking in this regard, has chosen as a cover photo a frame of actress Helen Mirren characterized as the detective Jane Tennison in the television series Time Suspect. Being both Swedish Nina Stemme and John Lundgren, it is impossible not to think of Saga Norén, Malmö’s detective in The bridge or, better yet, in Kurt Wallander, whose passion for opera is well known to the readers of Henning Mankell’s novels. The representation of next Friday of this “thriller opera ”, as the Bavarian State Opera has published in its legitimate desire to attract new spectators to its always crowded Nationaltheater of the Max-Joseph-Platz, will be broadcast live on its (free) channel on streaming, Staatsoper TV Those who continue to think absurdly that everything in the opera is formalin, or naphthalene, or cardboard, or old-fashioned, will do very well to connect, because they will change their mind with certainty. They like it or they don’t like what they see and hear.