Completed in 1917, Béla Bartók’s only opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle,’’ is a chilling psychological masterpiece, a reimagining of the Charles Perrault folk tale, in which Bluebeard’s three previous wives are all locked behind the seventh and last door in a series, still alive. Now they live in his imagination, however, and his fourth wife, Judith, who insists on full disclosure, is about to join them.
The piece doesn’t show up as often as it should, especially on stage: It’s an awkward length (about an hour), and the libretto, by Béla Balázs, is in his and the composer’s native Hungarian, an unfamiliar language to most opera singers as well as to most audiences. So credit Boston University for opening its 15th annual Fringe Festival this past weekend with a staged performance directed by Jim Petosa in the intimate, 90-seat black-box Studio 210.
Some compromises had to be made. There was no orchestra; instead, the composer’s piano reduction was played by BU Opera Institute music director William Lumpkin, who conveyed the piece’s spiky dissonance and unghostbusted gait and did his best to reproduce the orchestration’s barbed color. The libretto was sung in Jeffrey Stevens’s English translation, a sensible decision for a production that was as much theater as opera.
Andrea Nice’s design for the back wall depicted tree trunks strangled by metal tubing and clumps of twisted branches, a tangled nightmare that could have been the abode of the West Slavic deity Chernobog, or Black God; it suggested Bluebeard’s torture chamber, even with no rack or iron maiden. All this framed the room at the back in which Lumpkin, barely visible, played the piano. Overhead hung a stained-glass starburst, with some broken panes, in black and midnight blue.
“Bluebeard’s Castle’’ begins with a prologue that asks us, “Where is the stage? Outside or inside?’’ It’s often omitted in performance, but in this production it was spoken by Bluebeard. There were two casts. At the performance I saw Saturday, Adrian Smith as Bluebeard came out to deliver the speech dressed in a long blood-black robe decorated with a spider-web-like silver chain and sat on a heavy rustic wooden table (the set’s sole piece of furniture), holding in his arms what looked like a white-muslin shawl (from a previous wife?). When he reappeared with Meredeth Kelly as Judith, she was wearing a white-muslin dress.
Both Smith and Kelly sang powerfully, with crisp enunciation, and with feeling - Kelly even when she was rolling around on the floor. As actors, however, they didn’t sort with each other: Smith was recessive, enigmatic, whereas Kelly was melodramatic in expression and stolid in her movement.
Petosa’s program note indicated that he sees Bluebeard as a serial killer, and that idea turned Kelly’s Judith into a victim, a less interesting role than the one Bartók and Balázs assigned her. It was hard, too, to see Bluebeard’s three previous wives as living when each was represented as ashes in a box. But even in a less than perfect production, “Bluebeard’s Castle’’ remains a haunting experience.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.