Friday, January 8, 2010

Bluebeard at the CSO, and how about that ending?

Something is not quite right about Bluebeard's Castle. Following the production of the opera-ette back at the Harris Theater in 2007 (dir. Ken Cazan, although the credit for pairing Bluebeard along with Erwartung goes to COT director, Brian Dickie) I blamed it all on Cazan (KAZAAN!). In the final moments of the opera, three brightly-colored ladies in gauzy Bollywood outfits mince out of a little cellar (in Cazan's version, the doors Judith insists on opening are, for no particular reason except that they're probably cheaper to build, trap doors) and dance a sad little dance around Judith before pushing her down the steps and flouncing in after her. It's not scary, it's not thought-provoking, it's just plain strange. Last night at the CSO, I realized it wasn't all Cazan's fault.

What makes an opera? In this case, it's all about redundancy of information. Bluebeard broadcasts well in advance how things are going to turn out. And, in addition to being highly redundant and slow-moving, Bluebeard is also scary, which makes for an awkward combination, but also makes the opera more like a scary movie. We know, or at least we imagine we know, that Bluebeard is a homicidal maniac and that Judith, being silly enough to run off with him, bless her heart, is about to get herself chopped up for dogmeat. But the only thing that actually happens for the duration of evening is that Judith will seven times override Bluebeard's request that she not open a set of seven doors in his castle and that, gradually, each of the doors will come open. The suspense centers on two things. One: the mystery of what in God's name Bluebeard has hidden up in his weird old bachelor pad, and the fact that Judith will insist on opening up every single one of his doors (euphemism?) until something really, really bad happens. (Yippee!) Two, and this is the one I wanna talk about, because I think it's where Bartok misjudged things: the impenetrability of Bluebeard as a character. W
e can't get a read on him. Does he love Judith? Why does she love him? Is it the beard? It seems possible, if unlikely, that our suspicions about Bluebeard are wrong. Sure, he lives all by himself in a scary old castle ... but it's not because he's a crazy psychokiller ... he's just really different, and maybe a little depressed (and what woman wouldn't love that?) Bluebeard rises and falls on Bluebeard's indecipherability. If we knew what was really going on behind that massive beard, we wouldn't have to spend all night guessing, but we don't, so we do.

Up until the final moments of the opera, Bartok successfully drags out a plotline in which almost nothing happens, but it's just the right of something to keep us on the edge of our seats. Doors are unlocked at a painfully slow rate; we're waiting patiently to get to the last one, the one that really matters. We're willing to wait because we assume, and hope, that something terrible will happen when Bluebeard finally loses his cool: Judith will insist on unbolting that final, fateful door, she'll be murdered in cold blood and the curtain will come ringing down. (Judith, it must be said, could have avoided her own death simply by not being such a terrible nuisance about the doors* and then Bartok might have left the last door locked for eternity, leaving us to imagine what might have been there, a device which, as we know from scary movies, works wonders. Aliens are always scarier before we actually see them.)

But when Judith insists on unbolting the final door and finds herself in the company of Bluebeard's other undead wives, Bluebeard does exactly nothing. He doesn't lose it. He doesn't fall down weeping. He just stands there. Suddenly, the suspense upon which the opera depended (our worry or hope that Bluebeard will turn out to be a raving madman and that Judith will die a horrible death) is made to seem rather silly. Unless we have reason to believe that Bluebeard is, despite his apparent love for Judith, a total maniac, the entire story falls apart--and in the end, when we find out he's not, or at least that he's more Henry Darger crazy than Clockwork Orange crazy, it does. To complete the disappointment, Judith simply accompanies the other women back into the wardrobe of eternal boredom. We get no fits, no screaming, no temper tantrums, no aria of regret, and worst of all, no death.
Bartok's crucial misstep in an opera that is otherwise pretty fabulous (hey, it's short!) is an ending that offers neither the excitement of blood and gore and the confirmation of Bluebeard's truly psychotic nature, nor a reversal in which everything is turned upside down and Bluebeard is revealed as a man of exemplary character. (Hey, it happens: ever see Beauty and the Beast?) Instead, Bluebeard turns out to be crazy lite and the opera can't decide if it's a tragedy or a comedy (on the aspect of comedy, some of the dialogue between Judith and Bluebeard ["I want to open the door." "No, you can't open the door." "Open it, open it!" "No, no!"] is highly reminiscent of stand-up comedian Billy Connolly's take on opera). In a choose your own adventure of endings, Bluebeard makes all the most uninteresting choices. Bluebeard neither triumphs nor is he redeemed. He walks away, logs wife #4 in his diary and takes a nap. There's no bloodbath for Judith, and of course, she can't escape. She holes up in a cupboard to trade sad stories with a bunch of other slightly stupid women.

On last night's performance: I don't generally like concert stagings and I like concert performances even less, but Michelle DeYoung, last night's Judith, did a spectacular job of turning the concert performance prohibition on wandering around the stage into a dramatic strength. She looked as though she'd been nailed to the floor. It was spooky. Bluebeard, Falk Struckmann, on the other hand, couldn't have been less disarming. His glances across the stage at Judith seemed motivated by uncertainty (did I just hear a fart?) or maybe boredom (why is she still singing!?) And the CSO, while plaintive and tinny with its Ravel earlier in the evening, totally smothered the poor singers. Maybe Boulez needs an earhorn. Or maybe light travels faster than sound in that hall. There's a marvelous moment mid-Bluebeard where Judith opens the door to Bluebeard's enormous, vast kingdom and she's so overwhelmed that all she can do is belt out a huge, loud, sustained high C. Last night, Michelle's mouth came unhinged at the appropriate point, but all she managed was a silent scream. For a second I thought she was miming ... oh, my bad, that was the high C.

Poor Judith's treachery is unenviable--for her to prove good on her word, i.e. not to ask what's behind the doors, would derail the unfolding of the plot so she must for dramatic reasons have a weakness for spoiling a good secret. Wagner understood the usefulness of such a predicament, since without Elsa's betrayal of Lohengrin in the final hour, the two would be fated to live happily ever after with an enormous elephant in the room (who in God's name she actually married). Instead, Elsa is forced to understand how entirely she's blown it, learning (what we knew already!) that her husband is not only an extremely good fighter, but the holiest bachelor in all of Brabant, but only at the moment she's lost him for good.