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UC Davis offers a visit to ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

Judith (Jessican Medoff) has opened the first door to the castle and doesn't like what she sees — a torture chamber — in "Bluebeard's Castle," a two-character opera to be staged Friday and Sunday by the UC Davis departments of music, theatre and dance. Duke Bluebeard (Gregory Stapp) pleads for Judith not to open any of the other seven doors. UC Davis/Courtesy photo

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February 23, 2011 |

Be careful what you wish for.

That’s one of the take-away lessons in Béla Bartók’s compact two-character opera “Bluebeard’s Castle,” which the UC Davis departments of music, theater and dance will stage at the Mondavi Center at 8 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Sunday.

The opera runs barely an hour, and the story is an interior journey involving newlyweds … who are not exactly a match made in heaven.

The husband is Duke Bluebeard, an older nobleman whose very name hints at a fearsome past. He lives in a gloomy stone castle — with multiple locked doors, and no windows. Bluebeard has been married several times in the past, and as the opera begins, he’s welcoming an attractive young bride named Judith to her forbidding new home.

Judith, like many a spouse, wants to learn more about her husband’s past. Repeatedly, she asks Bluebeard for one of the keys that will open a locked door — and after some resistance, he reluctantly complies. But sometimes, there are things about your spouse that are perhaps better left unknown.

That simple description covers the basics of the plot. The story actually comes from an old Eastern European folktale. But don’t take the plot too literally. As the composer’s son, Peter Bartók, says in his introduction to this new English translation of the opera’s libretto (which originally was written in Hungarian), “It is tempting, but would be a mistake, to treat this opera as one about the legendary wicked man who killed his wives.” Rather, many regard Bluebeard’s castle as representing his soul, or his psyche.

“The clue to the story’s symbolic nature is given in the Bard’s Prologue” at the opera’s beginning, Peter Bartók says, “giving us the hint that we should look for the meaning of the story, rather than what is on the stage in front of us. We should examine the stage within us, in our own lives.”

Mounting “Bluebeard’s Castle” has been a major goal for conductor Christian Baldini, who came to the UC Davis Symphony in 2009.

“We’ve been planning this for a year and a half,” Baldini said. “This opera is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. It was written exactly 100 years ago (in 1911).” It was a time when Sigmund Freud’s theories were emerging as an important intellectual force.

“This opera is very psychological,” Baldini said. “Judith is completely amazed by this man; she’s wanting to understand who her husband is. She keeps asking for more keys, and he say ‘No, no. You should be happy now.’ ”

Yet Bluebeard relents. Baldini said he’s convinced that Judith is “hearing what she wants to hear” from Bluebeard’s warnings, and believes “that she is going to change this man.” But life is always more complicated than that.

The stage direction is by faculty members Peter Lichtenfels and Bela Merlin — and as they’ve worked on the production, Lichtenfels has found himself gravitating toward Bluebeard, while Merlin has focused more on Judith. The set, by faculty member John Iacovelli, features the requisite seven locked doors. The lighting is by faculty member John Munn, who was the lighting director/designer with the San Francisco Opera from 1976 to 2000, and continues to design for San Francisco and other leading opera companies.

The atmospheric music and lighting — which start out in a gloomy mode, building up to bursts of light in the middle of the opera, and moving back into gathering gloom toward the end — convey the arc of the story, as the doors open one by one.

“Doors are fascinating. As soon as you see a door — and it’s closed — you want to know what’s behind it, don’t you?” Lichtenfels observed. “It creates curiosity. And in terms of this opera, it’s heightened because we can’t see any windows. The doors are the only potential way to let in light.”

Merlin acknowledged that the opera “is dark, but I would say it’s sorrowful, rather than dark. And we feel quite strongly that Judith finds the mysterious in Bluebeard extremely exciting. She finds that quite appetizing.”

Playing Bluebeard will be Gregory Stapp, a veteran basso profundo of imposing stature (6-foot-6). He’s sung Bluebeard before, in a 1995 concert version with the Berkeley Symphony, under the baton of California-born conductor Kent Nagano. Stapp also has sung dozens of roles with the San Francisco Opera, and appeared with many other opera companies and orchestras around the country.

Playing Judith will be Jessica Medoff, a young lyric soprano from New York who is still in the early phases of her career.

Tickets are $15 to $35 general and $7.50 to $17.50 for students, available online at http://www.mondaviarts.org or by calling the box office at (530) 754-2787.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

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