fb-pixel Skip to main content

Seven operatic doors and the secrets behind them

On Wednesday night at Flynn Cruiseport, Boston Lyric Opera presented a rare staging of Bartok’s one-act opera ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ alongside four songs by Alma Mahler

Naomi Louisa O'Connell, in the role of Judith, and Ryan McKinny as Bluebeard performing at a dress rehearsal of Boston Lyric Opera's new production of "Bluebeard's Castle" and Four Songs.Liza Voll

Boston Lyric Opera, which has been without a permanent home for years, has by now learned a thing or two about transforming alternative spaces. They’ve tried mounting operas in a skating rink, a basketball stadium, the JFK library, and many other locations.

The company’s most recent installation, a production of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” is one of its most compelling in recent memory. Yes, it takes place at Flynn Cruiseport, the departure point for cruise ships, but its success owes more to the ways in which it makes you forget all about these surroundings. The aesthetic is minimalist, the lines are clean, and, taking its cue from Bela Balazs’s symbolist libretto, the action plays out both before your eyes and, even more importantly, on an interior stage.


“Bluebeard” premiered in 1918, a time when the unconscious was very much, pardon me, on people’s mind. That same year the world read of “Wolf Man,” a patient of Freud’s who dreamed of a window that opens to reveal a terrifying scene of wolves sitting in a tree.

In Bartok’s one-act opera, performed here in English translation, it is not the window that opens but the door — seven of them in fact, each of which contains a shocking secret of Duke Bluebeard’s castle. Judith, his new wife, is determined to open each of the doors, probing to ever-deeper layers of her mysterious husband’s inner worlds.

Veteran director Anne Bogart has created a production that resonates sympathetically with the vivid, kaleidoscopic music of Bartok’s score, which is often played by a massive orchestra but was heard on Wednesday night in a deftly rendered reduction for 28 players under the baton of David Angus.

There are dancers around the edges of the stage — they are Bluebeard’s previous wives, and they contribute a kind of subliminal vocabulary of movement. A bed dominates the center of the stage, which is itself a kind of operatic cliche, but it is put to wonderfully imaginative use. As each of the seven doors is opened in Judith’s mind, it is represented by the peeling away of layers of bedding. The opening of the seventh door — which reveals a lake of tears — is depicted to particularly magical effect, but rather than give that effect away, I will leave this door closed and simply recommend that you see it for yourself.


None of this framing would mean much without the excellent vocal performances at the heart of the evening. The role of Bluebeard on Wednesday night was sung by Ryan McKinny with a rare blend of dramatic force and subtlety. And Naomi Louisa O’Connell sang the part of Judith with coolly gleaming tones and a well-honed sense of her character’s obsessive urge to reveal the Duke’s secrets.

When it is staged at all, “Bluebeard” is typically seen alongside another one-act opera, but BLO chose instead to pair it with Four Songs by Alma Mahler. Three of them were presented before the opera began, and a fourth — “Licht in der Nacht” (Light in the Night) — was presented afterward. The way in which this last song rose up from the silence surrounding the end of “Bluebeard” was, in its own way, riveting. It capped a night of music and theater brought into a kind of elusive accord that I hope the company sets as its new standard.



Presented by Boston Lyric Opera

At The Terminal, Flynn Cruiseport, Wednesday night (repeats March 24, 25, and 26)

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.