Under the banner of its acclaimed Discovery Series, the Atlanta Opera welcomed its 2022-2023 season last weekend with an acclaimed staging of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The production, the brainchild of stage director Daisy Evans and conductor Stephen Higgins, premiered last November at London’s Theatre of Sound to glowing reviews, and makes its American premiere with these performances at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center. It made for an emotional evening at the theater which likely resonated with many.
Allegories, ambiguous symbolism and gothic fairy tales are often easy bait for the enterprising modern opera director. Director Daisy Evans is no exception, but where some favor a more gratuitous vein, Ms. Evans has chosen a more courageous path. Admitting a failure to reconcile Bluebeard’s music and text with that of a murderous psychopath, she has sought to reimagine the work in a way that resolves the character’s ambiguities. Her vision of the action turns the libretto on its head: Bluebeard’s brutal gothic castle, with its minimal hallway flanked by seven doors, becomes the interior of a simple house filled with the trappings that make it an ordinary home. Judith is no longer Bluebeard’s latest bride, but his lifelong partner who is grappling with the onset of dementia. Instead of doors revealing the fate of Bluebeard’s previous wives, an old trunk serves to unlock the various memories that fade in and out of Judith’s consciousness: Her splendor as a youthful bride, the joys of motherhood and the painful tragedy that triggered her illness. We are faced with the different stages of the life of this woman, juxtaposed with Bluebeard’s tragic plight. For as he unveils her memories, they both relive their painful past as she continues to inevitably fade away.
The intimate setting established by Ms. Evans is further promoted by maestro Stephen Higgins’ carefully crafted orchestral reduction. A labor of love embarked during the pandemic lock-down, maestro Higgins distilled what is considered to be a large orchestral showpiece down to nine instruments. While those familiar with the work will surely crave the diversity of color which only a full orchestra can provide, maestro Higgins’ reduction achieves much through economical means. His efforts are brought to life by nine talented musicians, with David Odom, John Warren, and David Bradley standing out for their meticulous work in the clarinet and horn sections respectively.
While Bluebeard’s Castle demands the attention of the audience for a run time of just over one hour, it challenges the endurance of the two protagonists who must essentially maintain an extended duet for the duration of the show. The company offers baritone Michael Mayes, a favorite with Atlanta Opera audiences, in the opera’s title role. In our previous encounters with his work, we’ve found his portrayals physically energetic yet lacking degrees of vocal finesse. Though his physical acting took center stage again in these performances, Bartok’s musical language proved a good vehicle for his expressive vocal possibilities. His Bluebeard is wonderfully understated and tenderly responsive to his Judith, the renown dramatic soprano Susan Bullock, who we are convinced made her Atlanta Opera debut in these performances though the playbill made no mention of the fact. Ms. Bullock’s repertoire is a veritable survey of the heavy dramatic soprano roles most voice teachers will caution about, and recalling our last hearing her as Strauss’ Elektra thirteen years ago at some big opera company up north, her vocal powers have diminished somewhat. But that’s to be expected. As heard last weekend, the voice’s gleamy focus gets clouded by an occasional weakness in the middle passagio, which creeps up with little warning, at times affecting the top of the voice and other times the middle (a factor that surely affected Judith’s iconic reaction as the fifth door is opened). She cleverly used her vocal patina and hypnotic stage presence to weave a devastating portrayal of Judith.
The success of this reimagining of Bartok’s only opera was made possible by the intimate setting provided by Kennesaw State University’s Morgan Concert Hall at the Bailey Performance Center, a one level concert venue that seats just over six-hundred patrons. It allowed the orchestral reduction to fill the space to its fullest possibilities while providing an immersive experience to both patrons and musicians, encouraging a more naturalistic acting style from the cast while providing the audience with the opportunity to experience director Evan’s English translation without the aid of supertitles. And that, like performances of Bluebeard’s Castle, is a rare treat indeed.
The Atlanta Opera will return to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in November for the opening of its mainstage season with performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The 2022-2023 season promises to be one for the books, and will also include Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bernstein’s Candide and Wagner’s Das Rheingold. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org