By Jennifer Hambrick For the Columbus Dispatch
The idea of death as a doorway through which all the living must eventually walk is ancient and tantalizing – we all want to know now, before having to walk through it, what’s behind the door.
Death – literal and metaphorical – was theme of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s Chihuly Festival, showcasing Richard Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration and Bartok’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, at the Ohio Theatre. Columbus Symphony music director Rossen Milanov led the orchestra, mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and bass-baritone Mark Schnaible in gripping performances highlighted in every sense by visually stunning artwork by noted glass artist Dale Chihuly.
As its title suggests, Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration portrays in sound the final hours in the life of a striver, someone who aimed for impossible ideals and ultimately found peace in the realization that striving, the quest, was its own reward.
The treacherously delicate opening was bathed in the kind of hazy half-light of a dimming flame, despite a few slightly rough entrances in the winds, whose solos nevertheless intertwined deliciously.
The transition into the first bombastic section was slightly out of sync, but the orchestra recovered immediately, pouring itself into Strauss’ intense and beleaguered lines, pulsing veins of agony and desperation.
From that soaring climax the orchestra moved seamlessly into the realm of sweetness and comfort, where beautiful wind solos and expressive playing in the violins conveyed the wistful ease of youth and better days.
Milanov’s straightforward pacing through the next climactic section brought bombast in the low brass and a point of arrival that offered, here and there, a glimpse – but, importantly, only a glimpse – of the view from the mountaintop.
The orchestra played sublimely into the moment of transfiguration, soaring over plateau after plateau, maintaining intensity and luster of sound to the final climax, which glowed with the cool shade of eternity.
Light and shade played literal and metaphorical roles in last night’s performance of Bartok’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Based on Charles Perrault’s telling of the legend of the wealthy Bluebeard rumored for murdering his wives, Bartok’s Bluebeard is an hour-long tight shot on the title character and his young bride, Judith who, having forsaken her parents, siblings and even a fiancé in order to marry Bluebeard, expects her spouse to keep no secrets from her.
Bartok also included the opera’s setting, the dark and gloomy hall inside Bluebeard’s Castle, on the opera’s list of characters. The set representing the dark hall – six of Chihuly’s glass sculptures encased in black rectangular cubes that pivot to open each “door” – achieves maximum dramatic effect as shapes inspired by the untamable, often frightening realm of nature, and as the sculptures change emotional temperature in ever-shifting light and shadow.
Gleaming in blood red, brilliant white, deep indigo and vernal green, and glowing from within, Chihuly’s forms sometimes writhe with the wild intensity of a restless vine, sometimes bolt upright as though searching for the sun, sometimes cup their mouths like beggar-plants thirsting for a drop of rain.
Light plays an enormous role in the opera’s libretto, written by the Hungarian poet Béla Balázs and projected in English surtitles over the stage in last night’s performance. Thus, the stage lighting – that which illuminated Chihuly’s glass art, that which at times gave Bluebeard’s face a death-like pallor and turned hands a telltale scarlet – must also be considered a character every bit as involved in the action as are the set and the singers.
The prologue – normally spoken during the orchestral introduction but, in last night’s performance, projected on-screen – throws down the psychological gauntlet with this eerie truth – “we tell our own tale wherever we come from.” The title character wants precisely not to tell Judith of his past. As Judith demands that Bluebeard open the seven closed doors in his dark, cold castle – to reveal his soul to her – he does everything, in fact, to convince her that she really doesn’t want to know.
But knowing Bluebeard is her privilege, and so Judith persists. Maultsby’s rich mezzo-soprano gave dynamic voice to her character, whose earnest love near the beginning of the opera, as she tells Bluebeard that she can let light into his castle, took on vocal expressions of shock, fear, pity and panic as, over time, she came to understand the full force of her husband’s deep wounds and dark baggage.
Schnaible’s Bluebeard is an older man fully aware of his own demons, cautious of himself, guarded, as Judith learns, by a vast arsenal hidden behind one of the seven mysterious doors. Schnaible made his character a sympathetic one instead of a psychotic one by way of a voice at times matter-of-fact and at times languorous, the voice of a worldly-wise being who wants both to live in Judith’s light and for the light of truth to shine, but who knows that one will tragically obscure the other.
Milanov led the orchestra masterfully through Bartok’s phenomenally complex score, moments of which rang gloriously through the theater. Extremely lovely English horn and clarinet solos shone through in the first minutes of the opera. Dazzling orchestral interludes throughout the opera displayed a spectrum of tone-color as rich as any in Chihuly’s spectacular sculptures.
In all its lustrous playing, the orchestra overpowered both Maultsby and Schnaible at a few moments of great intensity, when Bartok’s thick, loud and anxious orchestral writing simply was too much for the relatively low registers of the singers to outsing. Balance may be one of the problems that led some early in the opera’s history to deem it “unplayable.”