Chihuly Meets Bartok

Chihuly Meets Bartok
Composer Bela Bartok
Composer Bela Bartok

Music, mystery and excitement in a glass filled castle

By Montague Gammon III


When JoAnn Falletta calls any musical event “one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of, in my entire life of making music,” it’s time to take notice.

That’s how she characterized the upcoming Virginia Arts Festival/Virginia Symphony Orchestra performance of Béla Bartók’s two person opera Bluebeard’s Castle, which she first conducted with her Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra last October.

Now Maestro Falletta – or Dr. Falletta, to give our Symphony’s Music Director the due to which the highest of her earned degrees from Juilliard entitles her – has helmed Virginia’s premiere orchestra for almost a quarter century. Since 1999 she’s also been Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, with whom she won two Grammy Awards. She’s conducted the VSO at Carnegie Hall and the Ulster Orchestra at the London Proms, led major orchestras all over the world, held artistic posts stretching from Hawaii to Belfast, has a growing discography that fills a good page of her online bio, and in general has a most accomplished, knowledgeable, varied and impressive “life of making music.”

So anything musical to which she applies a superlative must indeed be something special.

The “brilliance and stunning artistic quality” of the huge Dale Chihuly glass pieces that comprise the set “play an important part in the story,” Falletta says. Those seven works will be revealed at intervals in the performance, as the doors of the titular castle are opened.

“People will be stunned by the magnificence of this artwork,” she promises. Baritone Charles Robert Austin, who will recap his Buffalo role of Bluebeard for the Virginia production, refers to “the amazing visual impact” of the Chihuly glass “each time we open a door.”

Bartók’s only opera, which Falletta terms an “incredible piece of music,” and which Austin says incorporates “some of the most beautiful chordal structure that any composer has ever written,” is about the most intense composition anyone’s ever going to hear in any concert hall. That intensity is unrelenting for all of the 70 or so “very powerful” minutes it takes to run through this psychologically complex, even puzzling, drama of a young and apparently smitten new bride and her older husband. A titled Duke, wealthy, powerful, “very charismatic and even mysterious,” he’s a man whose distinctly unilluminated past has given him a reputation that is implicitly intimidating and carries strong hints of danger.

“One line that fascinates me,” Falletta says, is that Bluebeard asks his new wife, “over and over, ‘Are you frightened?’ almost as though he expects her to be frightened.”

Even “the music can be frightening,” Falletta says. She refers to the simultaneous “scariness and the beauty” of the music.

Each of Chihuly’s seven glass sculptures stands for what lies behind each of the castle’s doors that new wife Judith insists be opened.

Or as one translation of Béla Balázs’ libretto has it, Judith sings to her new spouse:

“I came hither because I love you.

I am here, and I am yours.

Show me all your hidden secrets.

Let me enter ev’ry doorway.”

The range of beautiful, horrible, impressive, sad and troubling scenes and items seen through those portals only makes sense if they are viewed as metaphors for Bluebeard’s psychology and history. They are the chambers of his psyche, his identity and his memories.

Judith sees, repeatedly, blood. (Perhaps it was shed by others or perhaps by Bluebeard himself, a record of his own traumas.) She finds a display of vast power and sees huge riches, discovers overwhelming beauty and, locked behind the next-to-last door, the wrenching, tangible evidence of his immense and long lasting heartaches.

“He shows her the worst of himself and the best of himself,” Austin explains, but the “horrendous” comes first. “His romantic parts … the beauty” come later.

Austin says “in the back of her mind” Judith assumes the blood she sees is the blood of his ex-wives, but this is not the murderous Bluebeard of the familiar folk/horror story. The last door opened does not – to be a bit of a spoiler – reveal corpses, but rather elements, very much alive, of a past that made Duke Bluebeard the lonely man he is.

Austin quotes Bluebeard as saying to Judith “you have changed me.” But that was before she insisted he open door six, with its memories so painful that “he goes through PTSD” every time they are recalled.

Both Falletta, and Austin link the libretto to the composer’s “very solitary” (in Falletta’s term) nature.

Austin says “It was always noted that Bartók preferred his own company. He tended to be very pensive.”

Austin stands with those who see Judith as prying too deeply into Bluebeard’s past, unearthing pain that he wanted to keep locked away.

He also views Judith as being one of those wives who, while truly loving a husband, still thinks she can change him after marriage. “She is looking to make him more than he … really is.”

But then, Austin has been married and divorced three times, and notes that he is familiar with the sort of relationship that develops between an older man of high profile accomplishments – for example, an opera singer – and a younger, admiring woman. (“Perfect typecasting,” he called his part in the production.)

Falletta, who’s coming up on her 30th wedding anniversary next year, has a slightly different take:

“She loves him and she wants to know more about him so she can love him all the more.”

“This is the new wife who wants to make her troubled husband happy. She knows he is secretive and unhappy and she wants to help him.”

Falletta says that Bluebeard does tell Judith “all the things he never told other women. It’s very important to know that he loves her more [than any previous wife]. She’s very insecure as well. You can identify with Judith; it’s very sad. You know at the beginning that this is not going to end well.”

The ending, though “leaves a sense of mystery and questions,” says Falletta. “The entire piece is framed in mystery.” Austin likens parts of the show to “a Hitchcock movie,” and the effect of the music to an emotional “tsunami.”

One reason that “people have to see” Bluebeard’s Castle, the conductor says, is because they will never again get the chance to see these Chihuly glass sculptures. Another is the complete, and completely, “unbelievable musical experience and visual experience” that it will provide.

Bluebeard’s Castle with sets by Dale Chihuly

Béla Bartók, composer, libretto by Béla Balázs

Virginia Art Festival

Virginia Symphony Orchestra

April 18 & 19

Chrysler Hall, Norfolk