For Friday night’s performance of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, directed by Daniel Hege, was joined by singers Samuel Ramey and Nancy Maultsby for a rare and powerful venture into opera. A set of spectacular glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly enhanced the performance, serving as the only sets and props in an otherwise stripped-down staging directed by Marie Allyn King.
Sung in the original Hungarian, the one-act opera by Bela Bartok is about a young bride who uncovers a secret: Judith (Maultsby) encounters seven locked doors in Bluebeard’s (Ramey) castle, and opens them one by one, revealing greater depths of both love and pain in her new husband. There is a limit to how much she can discover, however, and the truth behind the seventh door seals her doom. Chihuly’s sculptures represent the doors, and – in combination with lighting effects by David Neville – create an otherworldly effect that is perfect for a setting that may only exist in Bluebeard’s mind.
Ramey emphasized the sorrow at the root of the Duke’s character. When first appearing on stage, his movements and voice, heavy with vibrato, were those of an old man; the marriage of Judith and Bluebeard is a May-December romance. His body language suggested an imperial presence, unaccustomed to being touched. Gradually, as Judith moved him to reveal the secrets of his castle to her, his defenses likewise melted away and Ramey’s characterization became that of a deeply smitten lover, his voice becoming richer, his phrasing more spontaneous.
For her part, Maultsby owned the stage as the alternately timid and commanding Judith; just as the plot largely depends on her pushing deeper into Bluebeard’s secrets, so most of the movement on stage was hers. In addition to singing the challenging score, she projected the arc of Judith’s transformation from a shy but curious newcomer to an assertive partner to a powerless victim. A mezzo soprano, Maultsby sang beautifully and with a strong sense of character, although she avoided the high C that is part of the tableau of the fifth door, muting what is meant to be an overwhelming moment.
The score is a tour de force for the orchestra, as well, with many exposed solos, technical challenges and unusual chromatic patterns. Both Hege and the orchestra are adept at performing Bartok’s unique blend of folk music and angular modernism, although the sound was sometimes diffused, possibly muffled by the giant sculptures placed in front of the orchestra. This added warmth and lushness to the score’s many full, romantic passages, but dulled the impact of other moments when pinpoint clarity was desired.
What: Wichita Symphony Orchestra performance of the Bela Bartok opera starring Samuel Ramey, Nancy Maultsby and 9,000 pounds of Dale Chihuly glass
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $30-$80 at wichitasymphony.org or 316-267-7658