Inside Bluebeard’s Castle: Bringing Bartók’s Masterpiece to Life

Inside Bluebeard’s Castle: Bringing Bartók’s Masterpiece to Life

On May 16 and 17, the Houston Symphony presents a spectacular, semi-staged production of Bluebeard’s Castle featuring world-renowned singers Michelle DeYoung and Matthias Goerne. In this post, the production’s creative director, Adam Larsen, discusses his vision for Bartók’s fascinating operatic masterpiece. Get tickets and more information here.

When we asked the musicians of the Houston Symphony which concerts they were most excited about this season, one of the top responses was Bluebeard’s Castle, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s mesmerizing and suspenseful operatic masterpiece. Principal Clarinet Mark Nuccio voiced many musicians’ enthusiasm, saying, “Bluebeard’s Castle is something most people only get to play or hear once in a lifetime. It’s an epic piece and has amazing soloists!” Indeed, critically acclaimed singers Matthias Goerne and Michelle DeYoung are regarded as two of the world’s best interpreters of the opera’s lead roles.

Adam Larsen, creative director

Joining these singers and Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada is Creative Director Adam Larsen, who helps bring Bartók’s opera to life in a semi-staged production at Jones Hall. As an acclaimed filmmaker and live performance veteran who has worked with orchestras in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Cincinnati as well as Opera Philadelphia, Adam has recently won critical praise as the projection designer for the San Francisco Symphony’s innovative SoundBox concert series. “When I found out about Bluebeard’s Castle, I found it really compelling, because in one hour you have this amazing fable, and I think it’s a very complete work,” Adam said. “The music is rich, it’s lush—when I was approached by the Houston Symphony and Andrés I was really excited.”

Doors to the Soul

Based on Perrault’s retelling of a grizzly French folktale, the libretto by the poet Béla Balázs transforms the original story into an intense, psychological tale. Written during the twilight years of the belle epoch and premiered near the end of World War I, the opera seethes with the tensions of the era, exploring themes of love, power, and mystery. Having just been married, Duke Bluebeard and Judith arrive at his dark castle. Despite unnerving rumors about Bluebeard’s previous wives, Judith is fascinated by him and wants to bring light to the shadowy recesses of the fortress. “Bluebeard is this incredibly magnetic personality that has drawn her in, but there’s also a little bit of fear attached to him, too,” Adam explained. “You’re not quite sure what to make of him, so he’s an ominous but also incredibly magnetic figure. Judith is all about love. She just wants to flood the whole thing with light, and unfortunately she goes too far.”

Within the castle are seven doors, each of which contains horrors and wonders. Ignoring Bluebeard’s warnings, Judith opens each door in turn, seeking both to bring light into the castle and discover her husband’s secrets. “The doors open physical spaces, but there are also emotional spaces that they open, too,” Adam said. “They open up the desire for Judith to see more, but they also open up her fears. Bluebeard tries to stop her, but in some instances it’s almost as if he’s encouraging her to go a little bit further.”

A simulated image of the stage setup for Bluebeard’s Castle. Images will be projected onto layers of strings suspended above the orchestra.

Adam has created a spectacular visual framework to mirror the complex inner world of the opera’s characters. “There will be projections onto three layers of strings suspended above the orchestra. What is amazing about this surface is that it’s translucent and has beautiful movement. When the air flows, it has a sort of shimmering quality, so it feels alive. When a projection—for instance a door— hits the first layer, it passes through to the second layer, but magnified, and even more so when it hits the third layer. The screens magnify this pathway Judith goes through in a literal, but also symbolic way.”

Tradition with a Twist

Traditionalists will be thankful the production stays true to the imagery described in the original libretto. “We will obviously see images of doors, moving textures of the garden and especially of the lush world that appears when the fifth door is opened, which is the brightest that Bluebeard’s domain becomes,” Adam said. “The treasury will be filled with glistening riches, and the torture room will definitely be scary and foreboding, while also still inciting Judith’s curiosity to continue exploring.” A major motif throughout the work is the blood Judith invariably finds as she leaves each room. Instead of a literal interpretation, Adam has chosen a more stylized approach: “We’ll see abstract textures of blood. It may not be recognizable as blood, but it will have a very dense, dark energy.”

One intriguing deviation from the original libretto concerns the narrator, who delivers a brief, spoken prologue at the beginning of the opera. Instead of having a man as the narrator, Adam has chosen to cast a woman—one of Bluebeard’s three previous wives. The other two wives will be played by modern dancers from Houston’s own METdance company, providing an extra dimension to the opera’s riveting finale. Audiences will be able to interact with the dancers in the lobby before the performance—and there may be other surprises in store to help set the mood before the downbeat.

“I want the orchestra and the audience to experience the piece in a different way, to interact and be part of the whole thing so that we enjoy and understand the piece in a deeper, more powerful way,” said Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada. “I think that’s the goal at the end. To get everyone into the story so much so that you feel everything as if it were happening to you.” Just as Bluebeard fascinates Judith, Bartok’s score continues to mesmerize audiences today, prompting us to explore the darker corners of ourselves and our world.
Calvin Dotsey

Experience Bluebeard’s Castle live on May 16 and 17! Visit houstonsymphony.org for tickets and more information.

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