Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Douglas Messerli | "Locking Up Being" (on Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard's Castle)
locking up being
by Douglas Messerli
Béla Balázs (libretto, based on a story by Charles Perreault), Béla Bartók (music) Bluebeard’s Castle / LAOpera, Los Angeles, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the production I attended was a matinee on November 2, 2014
Béla Bartók’s quite terrifying opera of 1911, Bluebeard’s Castle, steals from elements of the original Charles Perreault story, but expands the work into a psycho-dramatic work that shows the influence of Freud, whose writings on William Jensen’s novel Gradiva, a work which has links to the Bartok work in the sexual obsessions of its hero, had just recently been published in 1906-1909.
Indeed, one might make interesting parallels between the Jensen and Bartok works in how Judith (Claudia Mahnke), recently married to Bluebeard (Robert Hayward) struggles throughout this short opera to cure him, in the latter case by attempting to open up all the seven rooms of his castle which he has purposely locked. The rooms are, obviously, different aspects of himself, elements of his past that he no longer wishes to consciously admit in his present life. Her hope is that by opening each of these rooms, she will bring light into Bluebeard’s castle once again, while psychologically curing him of his inability to face the past errors of his ways.
Yet librettist Béla Balázs makes his story more complex by suggesting that Judith is far more than a naïve do-gooder. In terms of this version of the story, Judith has been “raped,” carried off by Bluebeard unwillingly from her family, perhaps when she has already been promised to another man. Moreover, she has heard rumors of Bluebeard, including the suggestion that he has murdered his former wives. Despite these facts, however, she declares that she loves him and that her intentions are all directed at changing his life for the better.
Even if we ignore the fact that as a “victim” she parallels the behavior of what we today describe as individuals suffering from the “Stockholm Syndrome,” wherein the captive bonds with the captor, we cannot ignore that Judith’s quite obviously tortured love of Bluebeard—quite brilliantly choreographed under Barrie Kosky’s direction as a kind of brutal dance in which the characters pull and push against one another, falling, embracing and drawing one another in opposite directions that reminds me of figures in certain Fassbinder films or American artist Robert Longo’s paintings of the late 1970s and 1980s—is inevitably fraught with emotional suffering. Although it might be difficult to pin down Bluebeard’s major psychosis, he is most certainly a kind of misogynist, both in his sexual objectification of women and in his violence against them. He may also be a closet homosexual—he lives, after all, in a completely closeted world—which also helps to explain Judith’s determination to “help” him. We all know of women and men who believe that can cure what they perceive as sexual aberrations in the opposite sex, one of the most noted examples in literature being Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, who unintentionally helped to cause the suicide of her youthful suitor.
Going room by room throughout his castle, demanding the keys to his empire which he reluctantly but also somewhat willingly awards her, she uncovers his terrible history that includes torture, violence, great wealth, but also a secret garden, other vast land-holdings, and a lake—all built upon the blood and tears of those who have come before. Indeed every surface of Bluebeard’s castle is described as oozing water and blood.
While in most productions of this opera the various contents of the six rooms are expressed with corresponding colors—red, yellow, golden, blue-green, white and black—Kosky has chosen to forego these for what seem to me as a few cheap tricks such as vines being pulled from the sleeves of inexplicable male alter-egos of Bluebeard (perhaps also suggesting Bluebeard’s male companions) for the garden scene and hands full of tinsel tossed to suggest Judith’s discovery of Bluebeard’s treasury. I have no difficulty with the round, moon-like sphere upon which the actors circle in their door-opening treks; the director has presented us with a kind of planetary manifestation that immediately tells us that this tale takes place outside of time and space. But the colors might have helped in clarifying what Judith actually witnesses, while the occasional props Kosky chooses to present are simply distracting.
The colors also seem to me to be of importance because they represent a kind of progression of tonal hues we might associate with the morning, noon, evening, and night which are emphatically reiterated by the three former wives Judith discovers in the seventh room.
Each is linked up by Bluebeard as representing the time in which he first met them, and, accordingly, is associated with the passage of day from sunrise to sunset. In short, in marrying and then locking away these three women, allowing Bluebeard to gradually close himself off from any daylight routine in his determination to “kill time.” If he now lives in the shadow of time, his only hope of putting an end to it all is to also lock up the night, which he suddenly reveals is the modality he associates with Judith. Ironically, despite her attempts to bring light into Bluebeard’s life, she has actually brought him the one missing element he needs to bring an end to his existence, the pitch black of midnight. By locking her up as well, he locks away being itself.
Here, once more, Kosky simply fails to comprehend the story in his directorial decision to keep the stage lit while the curtain falls. It seems to me that the moment Bluebeard has revealed Judith’s role, the moon-light orb upon should suddenly be plunged into darkness. But this is another minor flaw in an otherwise outstanding production of a work that should be performed far more often.
Los Angeles, November 4, 2014