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Friday, May 18, 2007

The Snooty You Shall Always Have With You: Chicago Opera Theater's Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung

Although I continue to be favorably impressed with the quality of Chicago Opera Theater's productions and downright delighted that they don't shy away from the modern and the offbeat, they do pale in comparison to Lyric Opera on one important point, namely the amount and pomposity of accompanying text. But fear not. The running time of this entry will, as usual, exceed that of either opera.

When I sat down after the preshow lecture and before curtain, I realized that COT has one Pompous Program per season. As I found the entries on Bluebeard and Erwartung, I realized that I'd already skimmed them while waiting for Ulisse. Flipping to the performer/production bios, I realized I was in big trouble: (a) I already skimmed those, too; (b) there were only three anyway; (c) in COT's PP, these are really just brief forms of the person's resumés (resumé2?), rather than containing any insights on these particular works or performances as Lyric's do, for good or for ill.

I did, of course, have the lecture to contemplate, which had been given by COT's Director of Music for the Young Artist's Program, Scott Gilmore. I had dutifully brought my moleskine with me (I keep telling myself that my pomposity would be greatly enhanced by taking a note or two once in a while) and inevitably forgot a pen. This was particularly unfortunate, because Gilmore's remarks were quite interesting and enlightening, but at least one of us kept confusing Bartók (composer of Bluebeard) and Schönberg (composer of Erwartung), and I don't think it was just me, at least not every time.

Gilmore opened his talk with two "messages," one from Schönberg about the artistic experience being partly what goes on in the performance and partly what the audience member brings to that experience. The other, from Bartók, advised against billing Bluebeard as an opera (oops!), suggesting instead that the audience be prepared to "appreciate" (Gilmore was quite firm on the fact that both works were not really something one would be likely to say s/he "enjoyed") a dramatic scene. Please bear in mind that I think I've attributed the right message to each composer, but the whole lecture had a Parent Trap thing going on for me.

Although I can say with confidence that neither Béla nor Arnold looks like slightest bit like Hayley Mills or Hayley Mills, Gilmore's lecture made it clear that the two had enough in common to provide a whole slumber party's worth of conversation at least. Both were discontented citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a structure they both saw as restrictive, outmoded, and increasingly irrelevant. I suppose that by 1910ish, the Lasnerian date of both works, that pretty well characterizes the opinion of just about everyone who wasn't a Hapsburg. As the empire devolved, a new world was forming and every corner of it was infested with Freud and psychoanalysis.

Both saw a comprehensive artistic revolution on the horizon, riding alongside the political and intellectual, and both fomented that revolution through their compositions, their orchestrations, their performances, and in Schönberg's case, through visual art. In addition to the (ptooey!) Freudian influences, both composers were strongly attracted to the schools of art and architecture that were interested in doing away with embellishment and representationalism and in broadening Sullivan's architectural edict "form follows function" to include other artistic media. (This comment from Gilmore's lecture prompted me to ponder questions about the "function" of opera or, I suppose, to what functions of music opera is appropriate.)

For all the contextual they shared, though, Bartók and Schönberg pursued and realized their revolutionary goals in quite different ways. Schönberg strapped into the crazy whirligig of fun that was the grand musical tradition of Vienna in a state of flux. Bartók snubbed Vienna and headed deep into the heart of Hungary for turn as Alan Lomax (before there were Alan Lomaxes, of course, making him John, I suppose). Schönberg liberated color from representational duties in his paintings and emotion from key in his music. Bartók outed the Hungarian "folk music" of Liszt for the case of recursive mistaken identity it was (ah, urban folklore about rural folk, the eagerness of the bourgeoisie to see themselves willingly and innately reflected in the peasantry! does it get any better?) and reinvented Magyar craft as Hungarian art. Whereas Schönberg contented himself with blowing Mahler's mind, Bartók was taking liberal hits off the bongs of Strauss (Richard) and Debussy.

I believe the last question asked of Gilmore was how companies decided which piece to do first. This being one of conventions that quickly became unassailable tradition, Gilmore looked stumped for a brief moment before beginning with the slightly lame statement, "Well, the Bartók is longer . . ." (for what it's worth, that would argue for Arnie first). He then changed gears and said he thought we would be able to answer that question for ourselves as we experienced the two works. (I wouldn't count on it: The evidence of Bartók's liberal politics in Bluebeard were entirely lost on the guy behind me. I know this because he spent the entire intermission wondering, loudly, where the chewy liberal center was.) Perhaps motivated by the sea of blank stares, he further added that Bartók is challenging the audience some baby steps in dissonance (almost literally—Gilmore noted that the tension between Judith and Bluebeard is created and sustained by her vocal line being in F-major and his in the minor second, just a half step above), whereas Schönberg is completely, atonally off his nut.

See, I think it's probably clear by now what the problem is with COT's comparative dearth of opera-adjacent literature: Sure, Gilmore gave an interesting introduction to why these composers fit well, which probably explains why these short works came to be paired as the neurotic 20th-century Cav/Pag. Certainly the 1993 essay by Neil Croft ("Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung: Tales from the Dark Side"), which is thoughtfully provided in the program, both solidified some of Gilmore's points in my mind and gave me more food for thought. But ultimately, I had to do a whole lot of my own damned thinking and research and wondering if, sweet jeebus, there is enough time for me to enslave an army that I can network them into my brain and make them read all the things I need to read before I die.

With Lyric's expanded pomposity program, I can usually confine myself to poking fun at already-extant text instead of creating my own comedy fodder. See, for example, my reference to Cav/Pag above. If this had been a Lyric production, I could have used the analogy and then pointed and laughed at the absurd opening of Lyric's Pompous Essay on Cav/Pag, which redefines the laws of kashrut and topples the food pyramid: "[These operas are] often referred to as ’bread and butter,’ but which is the meat, and which is the poultry?" Instead, with nothing to go on but an enlightening preshow lecture and a well-written, if recycled essay not specific to the production, I find myself rambling at some length and directing the whole of my fury and derision at one line in the synopsis and the brief (if totally whack) directors' notes from Ken Cazan.

Those dual barrels will probably do more damage if I launch into a production-by-production recap. However much sense it makes historically and musically to begin with Bartók, I'm only beginning with Bluebeard because it came first in the evening. I can also assure you that the Bartók ranting will be longer. Conveniently, COT provides its director's notes online, as well as its synopses so the 2 of you in 6 billion who either care enough or who have read this far can decide whether to order a white coat for me or Cazan. Two white coats would be an extravagance.

In reverse length prioritization, I'd like to ruminate on the synopsis for a moment. What is the purpose of the synposis? For some, like my pal M, I imagine, it doesn't have one as they are not there for the story and don't need anything more than a rudimentary sense of what's going on. For others, it's probably de trop in the era of supertitles. But given its ubiquity, I think there are some rules governing it. The most important of these, I'd argue, is that it should summarize and do as little else as possible. Why, yes, I am expecting the bolt of lightning any minute now, because I am the Queen of the, Unfair, Agenda-Laden Synposis Played for Maximum Humor (my idea of it, anyway), and I simply love when a synopsist plays the "There is too much. Lemme sum up." card.

Nonetheless, to the extent that it is possible, I think the synopsist should avoid any interpretive lacquer and should be careful not to state as fact something that is up for debate. This is all apropos this line in the synopsis:
Behind the sixth door Judith finds a motionless lake which Bluebeard tells her was formed by his tears.

Leaving aside the American/British death match over whether that which needs a comma, I say to you: Dude, WTF?

Having read the synopsis, I was rather on the edge of my seat during the performance, wondering how the emotional worm would turn for Bluebeard: After so much of the blood wrung from others, a lake of his tears!
But you know what? Bluebeard most certainly does not say they are his tears. He repeats, the requisite three times, "Tears, my Judith, tears, tears." Judith, for her part, rejects his entreaty to kiss him and demands the seventh key precisely because she interprets the lake as being filled with the tears of his former wives. And that, my friends, is a whole different psychic kettle of fish.

I have no idea what Balázs (the other Béla and Bartók's librettist for this, his only opera) intended the origin of those tears to be. And if I know Maurice Maeterlinck (I don't, especially, know Maeterlinck. Definitely not in the Biblical sense [ew! Necrophilia!], but even in the literary sense, although I'm not likely to ask if she's a freshman [it's a Daddy Long-Legs joke, people, just read it, will you?], we're acquaintances at best), Balász probably didn't have much to go on regarding the origin of the tears in Ariane et Barbe-Bleue. But I think it's safe to say that assuming Bluebeard as the weeper is a radical interpretation of the text, and those are best left out of synopses.

(Ok, I have a weakness for asides at the best of times and this isn't them. I just came across a review of this book about Bluebeard by Carl Leafstedt [why oh why does it have to be $72?] and I've got to quote this footnote from an otherwise quite positive review: "Leafstedt treats Balázs's ethnic origin with surprising squeamishness. . . . While in some cases one would welcome studies that underplay the relevance of ethnic origins, understating the role Balázs's Jewish ethnicity played in his cultural orientation as well as his reception in Hungary verges on misrepresentation." Sing it!)

It's not even that I object to that interpretation. In fact, I simply loved how this was played in this production. It's around door #3 that the emotional ships of Judith and Bluebeard pass in the night without so much as a heartfelt "I loved you in Wall Street!": Judith has borne the revelations of Bluebeard's torture chamber and armory with somewhat alarming aplomb. It's when she realizes that she'll never get the bloodstains out of that tiara that she begins to falter. More than simply approaching her major key more closely, Bluebeard actually borrows her text, whether in his own desperation or simply to mock her is never clear.

At the opening of the fourth and fifth doors (the garden and Bluebeard's [ahem] empire of unusual size), both vacillate. The balance of power swings wildly. The time is out of joint and it is unclear whether any given line is dialogue or soliloquy.

And then the lake is revealed. And in this production, Bluebeard collapses in on himself. Samuel Ramey was at his best at this moment, positively radiating sorrow and projecting anguish to the I-beams (what can I say? Old Louis would probably have approved of the Harris's concrete-and-iron lack of aesthetic). Musically, the audience's already taut nerves are assaulted with spine-tingling harp runs. These emanate from the pit at seemingly irregular intervals, and each is suddenly muted. It's as if tears of heartlessly silenced grief continue to fall even now. And it teeters on the edge of possible that these tears really are Bluebeard's, in whole or in part.

But damn that directive line the synopsis! Instead of being seduced by this interpretation . . . instead of wondering how, how Judith could doubt his sincerity, I was waiting for Bluebeard to work the situation by overtly claiming the tears as his own. Left to delve for subtext, I'm a softy. Bossed around by directive main text, part of me marveled that she could be such a fool.

Probably I wouldn't be so hung up on inappropriate interpretation in the synopsis if I hadn't been so slack jawed at the reversion to Perrault and the complete lack of nuance in Cazan's directors' notes. I mean, seriously, dude, you think it would've all been moonlight canoe rides through the lake of tears and making love on plastic hazmat sheeting in the blood-soaked garden if Judith could just get over her boundary issues? If I felt like giving Cazan the benefit of the doubt (and I did after seeing the production, I do less after re-reading that staggering set of notes), I'd charitably assume that he's simply channeling the mindset of any Freud-saturated member of the audience at the original staging in 1918. After all, we have Sigmund to thank for rocketing us back to 1697 with his sophisticated views of female hysteria.

I don't know. Maybe Cazan was going through a bad break-up and was projecting out the wazoo. Maybe he foolishly had a peon write his notes, a la "The Wørd." Maybe he's some kind of competitive cognitive dissonance champion, but his production really outdoes his notes. Ok, that's damning with faint praise: His production bears almost no resemblance to his notes.

In terms of the staging, the floor is painted black. In its center is a rectangle, barely discernible from the audience, divided into 6 sections of equal size and a 7th larger section. The back of the stage and the wings are masked with this tar-paper-y black fabric that is broken only upstage center by a plain set of stairs descending from a height of about 15 or 20 feet to the floor. At stage left, there was some staggering of the fabric masking the wing to allow for lighting from the sides as well, but this was not an "apparent" break in the blackness.

At first, the only lighting is from two overhead fixtures hanging high above center stage. These appeared to be simple, tubular florescent work lights shielded with ordinary black aluminum to direct the light down. This "break" in the staging (revealing ordinary work lights) might have been a nod to the spoken Prologue, which Gilmore mentioned and to which Croft refers in his essay:
The curtain, which is our eyelashes, is raised, and we ask: 'Where is the stage —within or without?'

However, the Prologue, as is common, was cut, so who knows.

When Bluebeard appears suddenly at the top of the stairs, the lighting changes so that a shaft falls at an angle across them. It is this cold, white light that is extinguished with a violent ka-chunk! when Judith passes up Bluebeard's (possibly ritual) offers to let her go and Bluebeard orders the door closed and bolted. Obviously, we're not left in total darkness. Instead, a shaft seems to come from the floor level at stage left, cutting a triangle of light across the backdrop that gets dimmer and more anemic as it grows taller at greater distances from the light source. This throws grotesque shadows that multiply and never seem to fall where they ought. The effect is disorienting without being distracting, so my hat is off to lighting designer Adam Silverman.

Judith begins with the door at stage right. The hinges for all the doors are at stage right, so that the length of the doors run up- and downstage. Each is about 2 feet wide and each remains open until the very end of the opera, meaning that we have 2-foot-high projections at about 2-foot intervals. I liked the gimmick of the doors being embedded in the floor, rather than the walls, and I liked even more that they in no way read as trap doors. It makes Bluebeard's castle simply another facet of the world, rather than an inversion of it. It invokes the inevitability of gravity and still leaves open the possibility that Judith's fate is a willingly taken step, rather than a fall. But practically, the doors sticking up did create some problems with sight lines, even from my, once again, relatively posh seats.

The lighting with regard to the doors wasn't as clear a success as the "pre-door" lighting. When the first door opens, Bluebeard and Judith are suffused with a lurid red glow. A very precise stripe of red is projected on to the backdrop, immediately behind the door. It seemed a bit on the nose, but then the next several doors were simple variations on yellow and/or white light that, perhaps, were copping a feel too far away from the nose. The garden projections were lovely and ookey at once (whatever that tar-papery material was, it lights like nothing I've ever seen before).

The lake—ah, the emotionally crucial lake—was given its due by Silverman. Initially, the backdrop and walls of the wings are dusted with blue-white stars suggesting a night so clear and beautiful that one can see the Milky Way. Gradually, these are joined by green twinkles of light, pretty at first, but suggestive of . . . well, pond scum. Ultimately, as Judith's jealousy gets the better of her, an off-magenta shade creeps in, submerging the characters in an unwholesome, oil-slicked puddle (and I love the urban nature of that visual metaphor, however, out of period it might be).

The revelation of the previous brides strikes me as something that it's difficult to handle well. I think I can safely say that Cazan gave it up for lost and didn't overtax himself trying to find a particularly graceful way to handle it. "Dawn" emerges first, of course, and I was moved to reserve judgement on the Heat Miser hair, because her body stocking and skin paint were so reminiscent of flayed flesh. It's not that I have any particular affinity for flayed flesh (I like to think of it as professionally appropriate relaxation of aversion), but it was deliciously gruesome. But then noon was revealed in banana slug colors. Dusk was purple, even though she's specified in the text to be some shade of brown, but by then I was paralyzed by not caring very much.

The dances assigned to the wives were jerky, spasmodic, and seemed to be directed at no one in particular. I felt it a cheat and a clunky bit of stage business that poor Judith had just happened to extract the crown, jewels, and starry mantle of night when she'd been rooting around in the treasure room. Also file under clunky and too "on the nose": the wives' dressing Judith in her death raiments, badly blocked domestic violence (because an unconvincing slap across the face is going to make her wake up and smell the coffee when the torture room failed to do so), and Judith's stripping of Bluebeard to get at the final keys. But really, it was a lovely, deeply felt, well constructed production overall.

It may, unfortunately, be time for Ramey to admit that the bottom has dropped out of his voice. Particularly early on, he seemed to be dropping entire tones or at least they were being swallowed up in vibrato. They were absolutely there later, so maybe he just wasn't engaged and/or warmed up at the very top. Whatever the issue, I'm sad to say that even to my amateur and forgiving ear, his voice has degraded quite a lot from when I first heard him in Faust and even from his Scarpia two years ago (in fact, I believe I remarked to a doubting that his Scarpia really still kinda did it for me).

Krisztina Szabó was dramatically on fire as Judith. She and Ramey had the sizzle and no mistake. I really enjoyed the clean lines and color of her mezzo, as well. In those senses, she reminded me of Bayrakdarian, and that was before I saw how she filled out the luscious black evening gown and dubbed her s a Hungarian-Canadian hottie (Bayrakdarian, of course, is a Canadian-Armenian hottie). However, she was simply inaudible much of the time over Bartók's bombast once we reached the Strauss-"inspired" portions of the evening. However, I seem to recall that Bayrakdarian suffered a bit from some of the same issues back when I first heard her, so I'm willing to give her a few years.

Finally, lest I leave the impression that it was the dancers who were bad, let me stress that it was the dancing that was ill-conceived. I've no doubt whatever that Kristen E. WIlliams, Candy Lawrence, and Kimberly Dobbins are fine dancers in their own right, but their rights were not considered by the choreographer and/or director.

Do you see how I slyly started that paragraph with "finally" even though I haven't even touched on Erwartung yet? That's because I think this is long enough for anyone's tastes. I'll address Erwartung in another, (probably) shorter entry.

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