Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Budapest Opera - Bluebeard's Castle - 10/14/09

Composer: Bela Bartok
Director: Schorghofer Hartmut
Conductor: Adam Fischer
Bluebeard: Balint Szabo
Judith: Viktoria Vizin

If the Saint Stephen's Basilica's outing had been a much appreciated short walk, the opera house was basically next door to my colorful funky little studio. According to an (apocryphal?) story, when the Hungarians asked their Austrian rulers the permission to build their own opera house, it was granted on the condition that it were smaller than the one in Vienna. Undaunted, they agreed and just made it more beautiful instead. World-famous as much for its stunning interior as for the quality of its productions, I guess I couldn't have found a more appropriate venue to experience a brand new production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, the only Hungarian opera performed worldwide on a regular basis. The prospect of attending anything related to the legend of Bluebeard had never picked my interest before, but curiosity about the music and the venue won.
Even the most accurate photos or descriptions couldn't convey the jaw-dropping red and gold splendor of the opera's auditorium, and I sure felt like I had stepped into another time and place. If nothing else, this incredible sight was most definitely worth the price of admission. As for the opera itself, this new production presented two versions of it back to back from each protagonist's point of view. The original work lasting just over an hour, that sounded like an intriguing and time-manageable adventure.

Unlike its richly decorated surroundings, the set was drastically bare with only two huge panels that were going to be used as walls, doors and projection screens, a red couch and a white veil. Featuring Bluebeard as a cold-hearted, modern businessman and Judith as his demure, insecure new wife, the first version was mostly a straightforward interpretation of the original story. Projected films were ranging from plainly descriptive (a bucolic scenery) to gore (bloody hands), Daliesque (an eye on which water was dripping) and frankly chauvinistic (former wives as cockroaches).
As captivating as these images were though, the singers remained the main focus point, and they both assuredly mastered a score notoriously demanding as much in terms of technical skills as of pure stamina. Balint Szabo was a solid, powerful Bluebeard and Viktoria Vizin was a young, wide-eyed Judith. However, no matter how undeniably brilliant the singing, I found it hard to really care for these people partly because they were not particularly sympathetic characters, partly because all the symbolism wore thin after a (short) while.
The music itself was interestingly unsettling, apparently unable to find the right balance between traditional coherence and disturbing dissonances, therefore very efficiently following the increasingly dark and torturous plot.
The second version had a more psycho-analytical approach to it, the first hint of which being Judith in a hot red dress and without anything even remotely innocent about her anymore. On the other hand, her new husband appeared as a misunderstood weakling, and the chemistry between them quickly heated up with her leading the dance as the hot-blooded Type A. In fact, things got so steamy that the young man next to me had to take off his jacket. This time, the projections were of a much more personal nature, if sometimes incomprehensible. Far from the cold, detached first interpretation, this was vibrantly alive and ferociously kicking.

Although I did find some aspects of each version puzzling and Bartok's music exceptionally unyielding, the opportunity to check out two reasonably different takes on the old tale in such an incredible venue was priceless, fittingly making my last evening in Budapest a fully Hungarian one before moving on to Vienna and more musical offerings.

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