Ryan McKinny and Naomi Louisa O'Connell Source: Liza Voll

Review: A Stirring immersive Boston Lyric Opera Double-bill of 'Bluebeard's Castle/Four Songs'

Ed Tapper READ TIME: 4 MIN.

After a lengthy hiatus, Boston Lyric Opera is back in action with a stirring double bill being presented at the Flynn Cruiseport in Boston's Seaport district. The main feature is Bela Bartok's 1918 one-act masterpiece "Bluebeard's Castle." The score is rich in atmosphere and displays a colorful, orchestral palette that could only have been fashioned by the unique Hungarian master. If features just two singers: A bass as the title character, and a soprano or mezzo-soprano for the role of Judith, Bluebeard's new bride, who convinces her husband to unlock the seven mysterious doors of his gloomy castle.

Although the original libretto is in Hungarian, the BLO production is being sung in English. As the Cruiseport performing space is arena-like, with an audience seated around three sides of the centrally placed stage, it poses challenges for staging

The cast of "Bluebeard's Castle/Four Songs"
Source: Liza Voll

Usually, sets for "Bluebeard's Castle" include the seven doors which are opened in sequence as the opera progresses. This would be quite difficult to bring off in an amphitheater. Set designer Sara Brown solved the problem by having the action take place on the couple's nuptial bed, placed in the middle of the stage. The secrets were "uncovered" by layers of different fabric that adorned the bed.

Utilizing the perimeter of the stage space, director Anne Bogart kept the action flowing by having the former wives (six silent roles, in Bogart's conception) enact choreography and mime during the drama, and she created a variety of wonderful effects with the billowing layers of fabric that were manipulated to symbolize secrets hidden behind the doors.

Making his debut with the company, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny gave a superb, well-sung characterization of Bluebeard. His voice is sizable, with a rich, dark timbre. The reigning hunk on today's opera stage, the handsome singer was believable as the husband with whom Judith was so much in love. This production could have added an eighth door to Bluebeard's castle, one leading to a gym; and this Bluebeard was no stranger to one. In a love scene, Judith removes her husband's robe, which revealed McKinny's perfectly muscled body. He sang the remainder of the opera shirtless – in itself, worth the price of admission.

Naomi Louisa O'Connell was a passionate Judith, creating a convincing and sympathetic heroine. Her voice is well-placed and carried easily over the large orchestra. The climactic high C that comes at the fifth door was dead-on, and had terrific ring. Her feminine beauty was an ideal match for McKinny's machismo, making for an unusually attractive hero and heroine. O'Connell was also the soloist in the other portion of the program, the Four Songs of Alma Mahler.

Ryan McKinny and Naomi Louisa O'Connell
Source: Liza Voll

As the Bartok opera is under an hour long, it is usually paired with another work when staged by opera companies. BLO conductor David Angus, who led the performance with his characteristic vigor and precision, had come up with the idea of the songs of Gustav's wife, Alma Mahler. Though known mostly through the famous musicians and artists she loved and befriended, Alma dabbled in musical composition herself; judging from the Four Songs, she had a talent for it. Stylistically, they are akin to early Schoenberg and Berg. They are harmonically adventurous, while remaining quite lyrical. In the BLO production, the songs were performed both as a prelude and postlude to the Bartok. Two songs with piano accompaniment and one that had been orchestrated opened the evening, and a poetic recitation then segued into the "Bluebeard..." Though its ominous text certainly mirrors the mood of the opera's bleak ending, the fourth song was somewhat misplaced there, where it diluted the devastating power of Bartok's finale. It would have been better placed with the others in the collection to constitute an integral first half.

There are two more performances this weekend, on Saturday evening, March 25, and Sunday afternoon, March 26. For tickets/ information, visit BLO.org.

by Ed Tapper

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