What's behind Door Number 7? Bluebeard and his bride prepare to find out.
But at the BU Fringe Festival last weekend, director Jim Petosa seemed determined to play its subtle psychodrama as the mechanics of a florid horror movie - a reductive strategy which yielded some melodramatic high points, but undermined - indeed, all but obscured - the composer and librettist's aims. Which was too bad, because both the student vocalists, Adrian Smith and Meredeth Kelly, and particularly accompanist William Lumpkin, who dazzlingly played a piano reduction of the famous score, deserved much better. I find myself often dismayed by the directorial choices of Mr. Petosa (who leads BU's School of Theatre Arts). For the sake of his many students, I hope I'm wrong and not him.
Needless to say, however - I don't think I'm wrong. Bartók and Balázs differ from Perrault's tale in that their anxious heroine, Judith, latest wife of the notorious Bluebeard, insists on opening every door in his dark castle (as he watches), arguing that only airing the rooms will provide the castle - and by extension her husband's mind - with welcome light. Various secrets are revealed, some macabre (a torture chamber), others seductive (a beautiful garden), still others melancholy and strange (a lake of tears), as Judith proceeds relentlessly from door to door, to greater and greater protest from Bluebeard. But when she finally discovers her husband's previous wives, sealed behind the seventh door, it turns out they are very much alive, and decked in finery - but still, silent, and trance-like. And once Judith has penetrated all her husband's secrets, she discovers that she too must join these women, splendid in her official role - as well as her own niche in her husband's psyche - but locked away forever behind the last door in his castle.
It's a suggestive, dream-like conclusion to a libretto that elsewhere hints the heroine has a few dark depths of her own. But director Petosa reduces these ambiguities to a psycho-killer through-line: this Bluebeard is a serial killer, and Judith is his next victim, creeping with ever greater timorousness toward her final destination. End of story. (The English translation still described the previous wives as living, but they were represented by boxes of ash - funerary urns, basically - which proved plenty creepy but not as resonant as the zombie wives would have been.)
Nevertheless, even in this blunt version, and even in a piano reduction of the famously lustrous orchestration, Bartók's vision still haunted. And vocalists Smith and Kelly both acquitted themselves well (and cleanly dicted the English translation) - although Smith, while he sang adequately, and seemed to be aiming for a kind of hooded mystery in his acting, only proved a somewhat flat presence onstage. Kelly, by way of contrast, is a natural actress, and has a pleasing, though not particularly complex, soprano, to boot. Her emoting grew repetitive due to Petosa's concept, but still she threw herself into everything she had to do with an admirable emotional commitment; something tells me we'll be hearing more from this young lady.
Meanwhile Andrea Nice's backdrop - a spiky Black Forest capped with a dark medallion - was creepily evocative, but things teetered a little close to grindhouse parody with the satanic altar center stage and especially Bluebeard's rock-star-pirate costume, replete with chains seemingly borrowed from Bob Guccione. The BU Fringe Festival continues through the month with performances of Jake Heggie's Three Decembers (Heggie himself will be in residency, and will even perform in an evening of art song on October 28), as well as Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel. Hopefully these performances will match the peaks of Bluebeard's Castle while besting it in artistic complexity.