Nearly a century after Bluebeard’s Castle premiered at the Budapest Opera in 1918, in a double-bill with The Wooden Prince, Perth is treated to the same double-bill as part of the Perth Festival 2013.
The West Australian Symphony Orchestra teamed with members of The West Australian Youth Orchestra, swelling to a massive 115-piece orchestra that completely filled the stage with hardly an inch to spare. Sir Richard Armstrong led this mega-orchestra through two of the most captivating and thrilling pieces of music ever to be paired for one evening’s program.
To begin the evening, we have The Wooden Prince, which is a ballet based on a fairy tale about a prince who falls in love with a beautiful princess and who must carve a wooden puppet of himself in order to sidestep a meddling fairy and eventually gain union with the Princess. This is a wonderful piece and although presented first in the program, as the warmer for Bluebeard, it is a magical journey in itself. As a somewhat gentle introduction into the sonic world of Béla Bartók, The Wooden Prince is a constantly shifting and moving work, as befits the context of ballet.
No two minutes sound alike. There are moments of playful humor, where we envision the wooden prince coming to life. These unfold into the rhythmic pulsing of traditional folk dances, reminding us of the natural world. And throughout it all, we have sweeping romantic melodies that evoke the love story at the heart of this tale. This is an enchanting work that constantly delights and challenges the listener’s ear.
The second half of the evening’s program is devoted to the main feature, Bluebeard’s Castle. This one-act opera based on the French legend of Bluebeard is legendary in itself. At first deemed “unplayable” by Bartók’s contemporaries, it has gone on to become one of the most beloved operas of the last century. There is no doubt that this piece would have been astonishing for audiences and musicians of the time as Bartók creates jaw-dropping, unexpected musical twists and turns that reflect the inner turmoil of the title character.
Here librettist Béla Balázs, who collaborated with Bartók on Bluebeard as well as The Wooden Prince, adapts the folk tale of a frightening duke who is suspected of killing off his wives, into a symbolic exploration of Bluebeard’s (sung by Daniel Sumegi) psyche, guided by his new fourth wife Judith (sung by Lisa Gasteen), as they open the seven doors inside his castle. Each door represents a part of his inner world and is symbolized by different colors.
There is not a lot of action in this short opera, which is why it is normally performed in concert rather than staged. Here the lighting designer has thrown a wash over the massive orchestra, and has mounted projector screens onto the choir loft, onto which is projected graphics and titles that correspond to the imagery presented with each room. The designer has taken a few liberties with the proscribed colors, but this does not alter the impact of the key elements of this work, which are the beautiful poetry in the lyrics and, most importantly, the astounding, breathtaking music. Sometimes the singers got lost in the giant swell of the orchestra, but nevertheless, this performance of Bluebeard’s Castle was satisfying and, paired with The Wooden Prince, made for a gripping evening at the symphony.