When Bťla Bartůk composed his only opera in 1911, he dedicated it to his wife, MŠrta. While we don't know what she made of the gesture, we can't help but wonder if she viewed it warily, for the opera was “Bluebeard's Castle,” a work based on the French fairy tale of a duke who murders his wives and hides their bodies in his foreboding fortress. It's an uxorial horror story of the highest caliber, the stuff of which nightmares, psychological thrillers and dramatic operas are all made.
Dramatic indeed was Opera Omaha's production of “Bluebeard's Castle,” which debuted Friday night at the Orpheum Theater. Although short — the opera is only one act and roughly an hour long — it was filled with the kind of emotional tension and storytelling that continue to resonate with audiences long after the last curtain call.
Bass-baritone Samuel Ramey is a complex Bluebeard, portraying him as subtly menacing, and, in what lends a poignant quality to the character, touchingly vulnerable. There is something heartbreaking about the depths of his sorrow, and although audiences know what Bluebeard has done (and plans to do to his new bride, Judith), they nevertheless pity him and despair of the happiness he'll never have.
The ability to evoke such sympathy in what we would today consider a psychopath lies with Ramey's versatility, both when he's intoning those deeply profound, death-knell-like notes as well as when he's silent.
He's mesmerizing when he repeatedly begs Judith not to open the seven locked doors, but also when he's just watching her, beseeching her with his eyes not to look any deeper at the man she's just married.
Soprano Kara Shay Thomson is an equally complex — and compelling — Judith. In contrast to Ramey's more doleful, reserved and controlled delivery, she sings in wider ranges and beautifully captures the naivete of Bluebeard's latest victim. Thomson portrays a Judith who believes she will be different from her predecessors. Through the power of her love, so she thinks, she'll turn the archetypal bad boy good and make him happy. As she unlocks each door, reality sets in and Thomson replaces Judith's early trilling optimism with steadfast defiance, increasing agitation and, in the end, heavy, dull resignation.
Thomson is able within the span of an hour to show us a woman slowly losing her mind, an achievement that is done so artfully, we don't see just how imperceptibly she does this one note to the next.
Under Hal France's conducting, the orchestra emerges as an intriguing Greek chorus to the tragedy, giving plaintive voices to the castle walls.
Because the 63-piece-orchestra was too big to fit in the orchestra pit, Opera Omaha placed it on stage, where it becomes a literal and figurative foundation for Bluebeard's fortress.
The castle itself is an innovative tri-part achievement of set, lighting and video projection designs. One-hundred-sixty black doors fit together like puzzle pieces to become the labyrinthine castle walls and make for the kind of dark and foreboding setting described in Bťla BalŠzs' libretto. When enhanced with lighting and video projections to evoke the rooms Judith unlocks, the effect is far more sinister by leaving the contents up to the audience's imaginations.
Emotionally devastating, musically intense and visually striking, “Bluebeard's Castle” is the kind of forceful opera that doesn't come around very often. We're lucky that it came around as the production for Opera Omaha to close its current season.