This Friday Berkeley Opera opened the second opera of its 29th season, with two one-acts from the early 20th century, Béla Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára) and Maurice Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. Wildly different in tone and intent, the operas nonetheless provided a wonderful program that was evocative and satisfying.
Bartok’s opera, which debuted in 1918 in Budapest, is a reinterpretation of the fairy story of a man who murders his wives ostensibly for their curiosity. The composer’s version converts this chilling tale into a vivid symbolic world with Bluebeard’s castle figuring as a representation of the man—dark and cold, sighs pouring forth from its closed recesses. The action of the opera focuses on Bluebeard’s psychological unveiling by his new bride, Judith, who insists on opening the seven locked doors of the castle.
Reluctantly, Bluebeard agrees and the pair moves through the castle rooms—a torture chamber, an armory, a treasure room—Bluebeard asking the horrified Judith if she is afraid, Judith insisting that light be brought into the castle, that she will dry its wet, cold walls with her lips, her love. A secret garden follows the visions of violence and murder, then a view of Bluebeard’s vast domain. Everywhere, when she looks closely, Judith sees blood.
Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss sang a superlative Judith, her rich tone smooth as honey, amber and full, slowly pouring Bartok’s dark melodic lines into the ambiguous world of the story’s emotions. Along with beautiful tone, her voice has real power—intense and focused without edge or sharpness. Paul Murray sang Bluebeard, and though he needed to reach for some of the lower notes, he portrayed a repressed and convincingly bizarre prince.
A video backdrop by Naomi Kremer, assisted by Mark Palmer, provided the visuals, which were both spooky and atmospheric. It’s a hard task to provide sets and designs for this opera—the imagery needs to remain connected to the story but not be too literal. The music’s strength and the power of the original poetic vision, however, override almost any presentation.
Artistic director and conductor Jonathan Kuhner used a smaller orchestra in place of the larger-than-average orchestra specified by Bartok’s score. Though hidden behind the projection screen onstage, the 34-member ensemble was nonetheless able to impel the dynamic power of the music, moving from the subtle strings of the opera’s dissonant beginning through the panorama of the work’s forte middle section with its enormous C-major chord and back to a quiet ending that, mirroring the opening, is filled with Bluebeard’s quiet angst.
It’s a truly great short opera. A must.
Videos by artist Ariel, assisted by Jeremy Knight, projected the fantasy world of Maurice Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, a wry and charming opera with a libretto by Collette about a bad little boy who doesn’t want to do his homework. The opera was written at about the same time as Bartok’s, premiering in Monte Carlo in 1925.
Forced to stay in his room with no supper by his mother—a larger than life-sized puppet with a bustle, fancifully designed by Michael and Valerie Nelson of the Magical Moonshine Theater—the boy throws a tantrum, tearing up his homework and books, breaking the teapot and cup. Suddenly, the objects of the room come to life, chastising him for his bad behavior. Teapot and cup swirl through the lively colors on the projection screen, shepherds and shepherdesses on pieces of torn wallpaper float by, and young dancers dressed in raggy, ethereal scraps of red surround the boy as disgruntled flames from the fireplace, protesting being poked.
In a fine black-and-white sequence the arithmetic book comes to life, barraging the naughty boy with word problems—“two trains start from the towns of …” Dancers carrying phosphorescent numbers form grinning faces that surround the boy, mocking him. Two cats enter and perform a duet of meows, then lead him to the garden, where creatures—a squirrel, a bat, a dragonfly, among others—accuse him of terrorizing them.
Patrick Dowd of the Pacific Boychoir Academy sang the part of the little boy. Though amplified, the sweetness of his voice had that clear crystalline quality of the boy soprano. He alternates in the role with Misha Brooks. The many roles of the objects and creatures were sung by adults lined at the sides of the audience. None of this was easy music: though melodic, it shifted through modes and tempi suggested by the whimsical story characters, its movement creating a light, quixotic and humorous atmosphere.
BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE and
L’ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES
Presented by Berkeley Opera at 8 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave.