Night at the Opera: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / Erwartung

Doesn't this sound like a familiar scenario: once you finally decide to go to the opera, the sky opens up and pours rain, and suddenly what you decided to be a great outfit for the evening doesn't seem appropriate any more? This was exactly the beginning of my “Night at the Opera” a few Tuesdays ago when I even cancelled the last few hours of my work just to be able to enjoy the evening with my friend Olga. Nevertheless, even the bad outfit (bad for the weather, of course) couldn't ruin the event. It was quite unexpected that I decided to go to Bela Bartok‘s Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Arnold Schoenberg‘s Erwartung. Chicago Opera Theater offered the double bill Tales from the Dark Side as two one-act operas concerning extreme relationships and the consequences of betrayal and distrust.

Bela Bartok 1927
Bela Bartok, 1927

The main actors of the Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911) are Duke Bluebeard portrayed by the most recorded bass in history, legendary Samuel Ramey, and his younger, but not any less great, Hungarian-Canadian colleague, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo as Judith. Interestingly enough, this opera was performed in Hungarian, which gave zest to an already exquisite and intriguing story. Both Ramey and Szabo were extraordinary in their roles, with Szabo sometimes fighting with the loud brass (like Don Quixote and the windmills), however, not because of her inability to produce, but because of the composer's arrangement.

Everything was working to enhance the story — excellent orchestra led by Alexander Platt, appropriate staging by Ken Cazan, wonderful voices — despite the awful weather outside. A small door opens at the top of a steep staircase where Duke Bluebeard and Judith appear. Judith has left her family and her betrothed to follow Bluebeard. Following his voice, groping along the wall, she discovers the stones are wet. Judith's attention is turned to seven large doors, all securely bolted. She implores Bluebeard to open all of them and to share his life with her. Reluctantly, Bluebeard gives her a key. Apparently, it wasn’t a smart decision, since all the problems started there, and eventually ended unfavorably for Judith (and Duke Bluebeard if I may add).

Bartok wrote this opera to Bela Balazs' libretto. Bartok’s liberal views caused him a great deal of trouble from right-wingers in Hungary. This opera is crucial to the modern operatic repertory, and Bluebeard's Castle can be seen as an opera rooted in the modes and rhythms of Hungarian folksongs. His genius was not recognized during his lifetime in the U.S., hence, the reason for his almost unnoticed departure from this world in New York in September 1945; he died on the verge of poverty. It is so unfair to him; it is so unfair to us. His language is not easy to follow, not easy to digest. I wonder if one needs to know his opus better or more music in general or just to be open to musical variety to be able to enjoy such an extraordinary personality. I think that the idea of bringing Bartok to life through his work should be appreciated, and Chicago Opera Theater praised for its endeavors.

Arnold Schoenberg LA 1948 Photo Florence Homolka
Arnold Schoenberg, 1948
Photo by Florence Homolka

After the intermission, Nancy Gustafson introduced the Woman in Schoenberg's Erwartung. The Woman’s huge and exceptional voice was ringing in the Hall of Harris Theater, and revealing her desperation over life. Erwartung (1909) describes a woman in search of her missing lover. In his own words, Schoenberg sought to “represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour.” Although the setting and atmosphere were equally on a high level, somehow the music didn't rise up to my expectations — maybe because Bartok left such a serious impact on me, or maybe the “grayness” of this monodrama couldn't color the remains of the night, or I just reached my ceiling for musical input for the night.

It is interesting to note that both Schoenberg and Bartok eventually left Europe due to the political situation in the 1930s and 40s, and spent their final years in the U.S. — Schoenberg, on the West Coast and Bartok, on the East. Although Schoenberg enjoyed the greater international fame at the time and exerted a profound influence upon the course of composition in this century, it is Bartok's music which has continued to grow in popularity with audiences.

We can only hope that the future will be kind to both of them, and be grateful to Chicago Opera Theater for allowing us to enjoy this music.

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