Saturday, December 5, 2015

Friday night II: Le Château de Barbe-Bleue

Bluebeard's Castle struck me as darkly humorous, like a twisted gothic take on an already-perverse Gorey story. Let me summarize the plot (spoiler alert):

Bluebeard brings his love, Judith, back to his castle for the first time. She loves him dearly. (A pause to note: Ekaterina Gubanov's voice was seductive, luscious, dark, complex. Fantastic. Compelling.) But his castle is so dark! Won't he give her a key to open some rooms, and let in the light? Bluebeard reluctantly gives her a key: to the dungeon, it turns out, which is full of chains and torture implements and they are covered and dripping with blood. Very shocking, but Judith soon begs Bluebeard for another key, to air out his dim and shady castle, and sings of her love for him as motive.

The next key opens the armoury, where all his weapons are ranked and stored, but every blade is stained with blood, which pools on the floor and is rusting everything. Pretty bad housekeeping. Judith may sing beautifully and her love is very compelling, but she does not see where this is heading, and asks for more keys. Apparently each door has its own key in this castle, and Bluebeard is something of a security nut, although the ease with which he metes out his keys to Judith suggests that he has, at best, intermittent relationship boundary issues.

Judith gets three more keys, having assured Bluebeard of her very strong love and her aversion to the dark and forbidding atmosphere in the castle. In a turn of events, the next key opens the jewel-house, full of ornate jewelry, but as Judith tries it on she finds that all of the jewelry is coated in blood. Unsettling. She pauses, but Bluebeard is getting into the reluctant swing of things and opens the next door: surprise! It opens onto a garden; at least one audience member is confused by the geometry of space in Bluebeard's domain, further obfuscated by the very abstract staging (Krzysztof Warlikowski) and direction (Esa-Pekka Salonen) which has the rooms, each a transparent fishtank-style chamber, sliding across the stage on rails so that they semi-obscure each other. The pool of blood extends over more than one room's floor, and when the rooms line up the edges of the blood match; it is a gruesome puzzle, but Judith can't put it together. Maybe the fifth balcony's elevation gave me a perspective she lacks. Literally.

A garden is nice, though, right? Yes, full of lovely flowers --- but they are [let's all say it together!] bathed in blood! Bluebeard has unorthodox horticultural practices, to say the least, sanguinely watering his blooming plants. Bluebeard proceeds to open the next door, which reveals a vista, stretching over all Bluebeard's holdings: lands stretch away from the window (or balcony? again, geometry is not a strong point here), and Judith is astonished at their beauty. At last, the castle is open and airy, well-lit.

That's not so bad, you think, and there's not a single thing on the balcony that is drenched in blood! Maybe Bluebeard's housekeeping is not so atrocious. Right. But wrong. Clouds scudding across the sky cast blood-red shadows over it all, and again the music and Judith's mood turn sour and foreboding. She sings of her fear, but then also... her love? and she demands more keys; no room can be left locked to her. One gets the sense that, as with many operas, there is a belabored metaphor here; apparently, the composer-libretticist duo had some nagging romantic relationships, and felt that women demanded access to every corner of a man's heart. If I were writing an essay, that is the metaphor I'd stick with, as it is heavy and obvious; essay details would weave in and out of musical terminology and staging, adding up subtleties to reinforce whatever particular point I fixed on as the focus of the essay.

But this is no essay; welcome to blogging, where text has less structure, unclear intent, and the writer's voice can be boldly first-person! (Look at how atrociously I break my paragraphs and break into my narrative.) I was satisfied with Bluebeard's dark castle, but Judith demanded more keys, and to fling open all the doors. Bluebeard insisted that this was as light as the castle would get, which nearly caused me to emit an uncultured guffaw: why did he have her start with the dungeon and armoury, then? And surely he knew that they were blood-splattered. He wasn't surprised by it.

By and by, Judith and her persistent, yet fearful, yet determined, yet cautious love wheedle another key from Bluebeard. The stage was filling with rooms, so I got the sense this had to be close to the end; little physical or emotional space remained. Behold! A new room rolled out, and not a single thing in it was bloody. Quelle surprise! Instead, it contained a mute child and a lake of tears. (Only the lake is mentioned in the opera, so the eerie child must have been a production detail.) Bluebeard is super-sad about this and asks Judith to please not ask him any questions. She gets upset and takes off the bloody jewelry she is still wearing from before. This audience member has a momentary reflection that some relationships are just really, really ill-fated.

Judith obeys his request, kind of, though she is still persistent in an indefinite way. She keeps cajoling and eventually obtains a key, definitely the last, which Bluebeard gives her but begs her not to use. She immediately uses it; so much for feminine fidelity and obedience, and her love having any sway over her actions.

To everyone's great surprise, the final door does not conceal the corpses which produced the blood used as (apparently) household decoration throughout the castle. Instead, it reveals three inexplicably-living women, Bluebeard-the-polygamist's current wives. He sings a consummately creepy song about how great they all are, praising each one specifically and showing her off to Judith, before forcing Judith to put the bloody jewelry back on and join them in the wife-prison-room.

The end.

Based on this opera alone, aliens would form a bleak expectation of the relations between human men and women. And also of human interior decorating. But our musical taste is excellent.

This post's theme word is avulse, "to pull off or tear away." The repulsed woman avulsed the gorey jewelry.

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