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23.9.06

Gianni Bluebeard - WNO's Unlikely Winners

Sam Ramey and Denyce Graves in the WNO Bluebeard, photo by Karin CooperThat the Washington National Opera opens its 2006/2007 season with a double bill of two 20th-century operas followed by an American premiere of a 21st-century work might be hard to believe but it is very easy to accept. Given the restrictions that a company with only seven different productions in a season faces in a conservative town, the inclusion of Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle – part of a double bill with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (both premiered in 1918) – and the American premiere of Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice (premiered in 2002 at Covent Garden) is gutsy and laudable.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (“A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára” in the original) is an opera revered by perhaps more music lovers than opera lovers. It is one of the few operas where the libretto is not only not a dramatic embarrassment but indeed all-important. Although not the most easily accessible opera upon first listening, Bluebeard rewards repeat experiences by revealing one of the most gorgeous musical scores in all of opera; one of the most dramatic scores. It’s eminently cinematic music, and perhaps for that reason specially appealed to director William Friedkin of “The Exorcist” and “The French Connection” fame.

Directing Bluebeard must be either very difficult or very easy – as little to nothing actually happens on stage. Project seven doors on a wall and be done with it; the rest is the characters’ to tell: Judith, Bluebeard’s doomed bride, and her gloomy groom in an hour-long dialogue. As a result the action of Bluebeard happens entirely in the listener’s imagination – predestining this opera for concert versions like last year’s at Strathmore Hall.

William Friedkin, who approaches opera direction with much humility, if not trepidation (“I am only the fourth person in line during a production – after the composer, the librettists, and the music director…”), produced the current double bill for Los Angeles upon Plácido Domingo’s suggestion. If you don’t know what the dark, brooding Bluebeard has in common with the commedia dell’arte goofiness of Gianni Schicchhi (apart from the year of their premiere, that is), it’s probably because they haven't anything in common. This production likes to turn this into a virtue, billing it as a study in contrast. For a more realistic explanation I’d suggest that Bluebeard represents the ambition to do something artistically valuable and Gianni Schicchi is enough of a crowd-pleaser to lure in those that find little to like about the idea of hearing a Bartók opera and less still seeing it coupled with Schoenberg’s Erwartung or perhaps Strauss's Salome. The result of this mix is expectedly awkward; a little bit something for everyone in the audience – but with few fully delighting in both. For many who take Bluebeard seriously, Schicchi must seem an awful trifle; for those who primarily come to hear “O mio babbino caro,” the Bartók might be too grim.

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Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Pair of Aces (Washington Post, September 18)

Charles T. Downey, O Mio Bluebeardo Caro (DCist, September 18)

Anonymous?, WNO opens with broodish 'Bluebeard' (Washington Times, September 18)

Geraldine Fabrikant, At the Opera House, the Friedkin Connection (New York Times, September 20)
Friedkin’s production features a black stage with scrims in the background, colored light, projected paintings, and photos for the different doors, a dilapidated metal spiral staircase on the left, and a fallen, half-defunct chandelier on the stage-floor to the right. Both items, polished, fully functioning, and restored to perfect shape offer visual connections between the productions when they appear again in Schicchi. The prologue – often cut from performances – was spoken by a white-faced, black leather clad Neno Pervan who floated in mid air before a black stage. Dramatic recital of this monologue can add significantly to the spooky atmosphere. If it is still able to do that when translated into English, however, I don’t know. So performed at the WNO I found the effect mostly awkward, akin to a country-fair freak announcing “Gee, folks… you won’t believe what y’all see tonight!” Compare to that the ominous clicking and clacking of the impenetrable Hungarian and you might agree that convenient supertitles would have been a better solution here. At the end of the opera another quibble: the three bed-sheet ghosts with three-dimensional flight patterns across stage representing the previous Bluebeard wives might have been more impressive had they been more subtle; less “Caspar.” Why Friedkin's Bluebeard has to physically strangle Judith for her to join her predecessors is not entirely clear. (Would he drown Kundry?)

Samuel Ramey and Denyce Graves were Bluebeard and Judith in L.A. during the first run of the production, and they were welcomed back to D.C. as a pair. Denyce Graves could sing on the Washington stage until she stoops over from old age: her ‘hometown girl’ popularity will always guarantee a very warm welcome. But it is obvious that her voice is not what it used to be, especially towards the top of her range. Fortunately Judith is mostly about characterization, less about pure beauty… and especially with some of her haunting low notes she can still beguile. Samuel Ramey, a fabulous singer and actor, may not be getting any younger, either, but once he got beyond the somewhat worrying low notes at the very beginning of the opera (you say “vibrato,” I say “wobble”), he went on to make the role his. Non-Hungarians might not be in a position to pass judgment on the singers’ mastery of the language, but it sounded notably softer and less consonant-driven than performances I have heard by native speakers.

Bluebeard's dilemma is that of a good book being turned into a film: where the imagination once could run wild, it is now restricted to the visual representation. If you have always thought of the Lake of Tears behind door #6 to bee an underground lake, black with only little white reflections indicating the presence of the water, then you might find a blue Scandinavian seascape limiting. If you have had bloody little-house-of-horrors visions about the sanguinary flowers behind door #4, drenching a Henri Rousseau jungle painting in red light might be too ‘cute’. This caveat to Bluebeard-watching goes for every production, though – and Friedkin’s hybrid approach, somewhere between sparse and traditional, isn’t overly intrusive. If anything limited the enjoyment of this gem it was the faultless but also listless orchestral contribution under Maestro Giovanni Reggioli’s baton who filled in for the indisposed Heinz Fricke.

Sam Ramey in the WNO Gianni Schicchi, photo by Karin CooperWilliam Friedkin thinks of Gianni Schicchi as the operatic equivalent of a Marx Brothers film. (Groucho and Harpo even made cameos in smaller roles.) There are operas that are sillier than Puccini’s only comedy, but he has a point. He also succeeded in modeling his Schicchi after a Marx Brothers film, and here audiences will divide neatly into those who like both and those who like neither. I admit that I can’t sit through an entire Marx Brothers film; it’s just not the kind of comedy to which I respond. But subjective taste aside, this treatment might not do Schicchi any favors. Played out on a stage set that espoused conventionalism bound by economic constraints (Zeffirelli minus the pizzazz) it descended into fun-house camp that undermined the last sentiments of drama left in the libretto. With tales from Dante’s Inferno at its distant root, the opera tells of the Donati family who wants to get its collective and individual set of hands on their relative Signore Buoso’s estate. His will bequeaths everything to the local monks. To change that ‘injustice’ the Donati's require the services of the cunning and wily local country bumpkin Gianni Schicchi, whose daughter Lauretta wants to marry her sweetheart Rinuccio Donati, nephew of the diseased. The comedy of the whole thing is that the supposed urban sophisticates – in their blind greed – are being had by the supposedly primitive rural type, Gianni Schicchi. Any direction that opts to turn this into slapstick and makes the Donati family a bunch of hapless buffoons and daft caricatures from the start undermines that humoristic point and sacrifices the element of surprise in favor of ‘silliness-in-motion’. The happy-end speech that was tacked onto the end for Sam Ramey’s Gianni Schicchi further undermined any last subtleties of the opera; an opera that does not necessarily end on an unequivocally happy and morally unambiguous note.

A troupe of local singers (think “economy”) plus Ramey still made much of this light fare. Most pleasing were those that resisted the temptation to ham their parts up. Samuel Ramey, always aware of the thin and indefinable line between funny and stupid, did this best – very much like Gene Hackman as the monk in “Young Frankenstein.” Leslie Mutchler (La Ciesca) led the rest of the cast in acting (i.e. non-buffoonery) – ahead of Elizabeth Bishop (Zita) and perhaps Valeriano Lanchas’s “Uncle Simone.” These four were also vocally the most impressive… to the extent their variously limited roles allowed. Antonio Gandia, who played the love-struck Rinuccio, had trouble making himself heard over the orchestra but offered occasional beauty. Beauty is Amanda Squitieri’s main asset – although more the physical than vocal kind. I would have expected her voice to have developed more since making a strong impression in Democracy, in January of 2005. She must be a dream to cast, though, offering convincing youth and infinite charm - and her tone was perfect for a believable, lightweight, sweetly innocent “O mio babbino caro.” It was also in Democracy where Robert Baker gave Baron Jacobi’s character a memorable performance. Since then I’ve only seen the same, overplayed ‘comedic’ shtick from him. Perfect for the Swan in Carmina, dreadful everywhere else. Except, of course, to those who love Marx Bros. films, fake stumbles, and gestures and mimicry that make a mime look subtle.

For all these objections – some trivial, many subjective - it is surprising just how enjoyable the evening out at the opera with this double bill is. Maybe the contrast works well, after all. If nothing else, the brevity of it all is refreshing. And if new Bluebeard lovers are forged in the process, all the better. The remaining performances take place on September 25th, 28th, October 1st (matinee), 3rd, and 7th.