Boston Lyric Opera's 'Bluebeard's Castle' immerses audiences in a fortress of horrorsPlay
Many honeymoons begin at Flynn Cruiseport in South Boston, but not this week. The Boston Lyric Opera will be docked there through Sunday, March 26, with its new production of Hungarian composer Bela Bartók’s 1918 “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Based on a French folktale, it tells the story of a fictional duke who brings his hastily wed wife, Judith, to his foreboding fortress for the first time, and the honeymoon is definitely over.
The one-act opera is directed by the recent Obie lifetime achievement award-winning Anne Bogart, who also directed the BLO’s successful 2019 production of “The Handmaid’s Tale” at the Harvard basketball arena. Bogart says these large-scale, site-specific works are risky, but they pay off. “It was a huge cast in an unwieldy space, we didn't know if the acoustics could work. And it was a phenomenon. It was an event.”
Bogart describes “Bluebeard’s Castle” as an immersive experience. Audiences enter into a salon where they’re served wine and entertained with music by female composers. Then they’re led up the escalator to the masculine domain of Bluebeard’s castle. There they watch as Judith realizes there is something very wrong with her new home.
“She notices that there are seven doors and she says, ‘Dear husband, can I go through those doors and see what's there?’ And he says ‘No, no, not a good idea.’ But he loves her and wants to make love to her so he eventually relents,” says Bogart. As she makes her way through, she finds the walls are bleeding. There’s a torture chamber with branding irons, a room full of his riches, a lake of tears and more. “Finally she gets to the seventh door, and there, as she had begun to suspect, were the wives that he had had before, who are living in a state of half dead half alive. And she joins them in that horrible state. So in a sense, he murders his wives.”
The opera is typically paired with another piece of music. In this case, it’s Alma Mahler’s “Four Songs.” The lesser-known Mahler was a great composer in her own right. She composed this cycle before her marriage to Gustav Mahler, who quashed her career. Of more than four dozen works, only 17 of her compositions survive today.
“Alma Mahler was the most desired woman in and around the early part of the 20th century in Vienna, and she was married to, of course, Gustav Mahler, and was lovers with people like Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele and [Oskar] Kokoschka. Many many famous artists who all loved her and wanted to possess her,” says Bogart. These men did not, however, want her working as an artist. “And so this contrast between Alma Mahler and the world of ‘Bluebeard's Castle’ is really a war between women and men.”
The opera stars American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Bluebeard and Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell as Judith. Bluebeard’s six previous wives are performed by members of Boston-based VLA dance. Founder and choreographer Victoria Lynn Awkward who, along with another one of the wives (Olivia Moon), happens to be a member of WBUR’s 2022 Makers cohort, worked with Bogart to capture the physicality of women surviving their oppression. They were inspired by 19th-century photographs of women who’d been institutionalized for hysteria, a broad term that generally encompassed anything a woman did that wasn't viewed as acceptable behavior.
“You can see these photographs of them in distorted shapes, hands and arms being inverted strangely,” Awkward says. “So that's a theme that the wives have — is this like inverted hands, these gestures that look a little unhuman-like. And throughout the show…they get progressively more unhuman, progressively more unhinged, especially as Judith and Bluebeard are also getting more unhinged.”
The dance of the women in “Bluebeard’s Castle” is an attempt to survive in the secret world of men, says Bogart. “I think male sexuality is dark, and labyrinthian, has rules and mythology, and women's is brighter, and women talk a lot. It's not so secretive. And so those two extremes meeting is very interesting to me.”
Audiences daring enough to peek behind the doors of “Bluebeard’s Castle” will be in for some surprises, even if they are familiar with the tale. “We have a very unexpected ending, which does not go exactly the way Bartók went about it,” teases Bogart. “I'm not going to tell you what that is. But I will say that we have six dancers, along with the wonderful singer Naomi O'Connell, who portray in a way all women whose creativity has been squashed, and they maybe take revenge. That's all I'll say.”
Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Bluebeard’s Castle” runs March 22-26 at the Flynn Cruiseport in South Boston.
This segment aired on March 21, 2023.