Jean-Marie Zeitouni, music director of the Colorado Music Festival (CMF), makes Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle sound almost like a Hollywood horror movie.
“The musical score is warning about danger,” he says of the one-act opera, which he will conduct as part of a Festival Orchestra concert Thursday and Friday, July 23 and 24, in the Chautauqua Auditorium. The concert, titled “Beyond Fairy Tales,” will conclude with a concert performance of the opera. Also on the program is Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, as arranged by the composer in 1919.
Performing the two roles of Duke Bluebeard and his bride Judith will be baritone Samuel Ramey, a world-renowned opera star who agreed to step in as a lastminute substitute, and Hungarian-Canadian soprano Krisztina Szabó. Ramey is well known for his performances of Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera and his recordings of the role.
In case you don’t recall the story, Duke Bluebeard brings his bride, Judith, to his gloomy castle and instructs her that there are doors that she must never open. Like a horror movie character, of course, she does open the doors — in spite of warnings from the orchestra — and finds evidence of Bluebeard’s bloody past. The opera goes beyond the original fairy tale, however, adding a deeper level of symbolism to the story.
“It’s a deep psychological thriller, initiated as a fairy tale,” Zeitouni says. “Bartók and the librettist seek to understand the psychology of the characters and make them more multi-dimensional.”
It’s in probing the psychology of the characters that the music becomes cinematic in quality, portraying the changing moods as Judith opens each of the seven doors. “The soundtrack, if you will, describes completely the state of mind of the characters and each of these separate rooms,” Zeitouni says.
“Each door has a musical ambience, each door has a lighting color, each door has a feel — sometimes it’s scary, sometimes it’s magical — and all of this, which is very cinema-like, is present in the music. We will have supertitles of the text (projected above the stage), and we will have lighting effects. So, I think everyone can understand how the music is telling the subtext of the story.”
The symbolism of the opera has been interpreted in various ways, but the prevalent interpretation is that the seven doors represent deeper and deeper levels of the human psyche and the basic fears we all carry within us. Thus, the light that flows from each door represents the illumination of a different buried corner of our minds. This interpretation is supported by a spoken prologue which asks the audience, “Where is the stage? Is it outside or inside?”
For Samuel Ramey, performing Bluebeard in Colorado represents a return to his operatic roots. The first opera performance he ever saw was in Central City, when he was still a student and serving as an apprentice at Central City Opera one summer.
It is also a return to a role that he has performed many times. “I’ve certainly had the wonderful opportunity to perform the work a lot over the years of my career,” he says. “Vocally it fits my voice very well and always has. It’s a piece that I never get tired of listening to or performing. I really love the piece.”
His first experience with Bluebeard’s Castle was also during his student days, when he ran across a recording of the opera by the great bass Jerome Hines. “I was always a great fan of his and so I bought this,” he says. “I started listening to it and I thought, ‘Wow! This is a fantastic piece.’”
Ramey wants to tell the audience not to worry that Bartók’s music might be too difficult to follow. “It’s a very accessible piece,” he says. “When I first bought that recording and I put it on my little record player, it just really had an impact on me. It has a definite impact on people who don’t know it.”
Though not as well known in the U.S. as Ramey, the baritone’s costar, Krisztina Szabó, is building a versatile career in Canada and Europe, singing opera from the Baroque period to the 21st century. And she has sung Bluebeard’s Castle with Ramey at the Chicago Opera Theater.
The opportunity to program Bluebeard’s Castle in his first year as CMF music director was important to Zeitouni. “The composer is somebody I’ve championed over the years,” he says. “All of the work that I’ve done with Bartók is leading me to Bluebeard’s Castle.
“There is a lot to be appreciated even if it’s the first time you have heard it,” he says. “It’s a groundbreaking composition, [with] sounds and instrumental colors that were never heard before in a modern symphony orchestra. It’s something that was so important to share with the CMF audience.”
ON THE BILL: Colorado Music Festival “Beyond Fairy Tales”: Bluebeard´s Castle by Béla Bartók, Firebird Suite (1919) by Igor Stravinsky. 7:30 p.m. Thursday & Friday, July 23 & 24 Chautauqua Auditorium. Tickets: 303-440-7776 or online at comusic.org.