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A ‘Feast For The Senses’ Awaits Audiences Of Bluebeard’s Castle

This weekend, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra joins legendary bass/baritone and Kansas-native Samuel Ramey for two performances of Bluebeard’s Castle. The one-act opera takes place in a setting of ornate, towering pieces of blown glass. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur reports….

Credit wichita.edu
Bass/baritone Samuel Ramey

Intensity looms within the Century II Concert Hall in downtown Wichita. Rehearsals are underway for Bluebeard’s Castle

The powerful opera packs a lot of emotion into the short run time of 60 minutes.

Daniel Hege is music director and principal conductor for the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.

“It all started with Samuel Ramey, he's of course one of the greatest and well known bass/baritones of his generation," Hege says. "He's had a tremendous career. He's a huge idol for me.”

He’s been looking forward to working with Samuel Ramey since Ramey moved back to Wichita last year. After decades of touring the globe, the opera star has come back to his alma mater to take on a role as distinguished professor.

“We had envisioned something like Aaron Copeland's Old American Songs, which is a beautiful and very wonderful set of songs," Hege says. "Ramey is the one who proposed Bluebeard's Castle.'”

Credit Sean Sandefur
Daniel Hege, music director and principal conductor for the Wichita Symphony Orchestra

Hege says the mere mention of BelaBartok’s 1911 composition sent him back 25 years.

“When I was just in graduate school, I stumbled upon Bluebeard's Castle," he says. "I'm a big Bela Bartok Fan. I didn't really know much of his vocal music. I thought, '60 minute opera, one act, two people--I bet I could do this one day. Maybe in a symphony orchestra setting.'"

Onstage, Samuel Ramey joins mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby for an epic, hair-raising dialogue, written in Bartok’s native tongue of Hungarian. Behind them, hidden from the audience, is the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Two of the six Chihuly glass sculptures are lit during a rehearsal for Bluebeard's Castle

Bluebeard’s Castle is a twisted story of deep, dark secrets. The narrative centers on the wealthy Duke Bluebeard, who’s just eloped with his fourth wife, Judith. As he shows her around his large castle, she learns more about his past. The singers travel through a world of eerie glass towers, designed by sculptor Dale Chihuly.

“The Seattle Symphony had commissioned Chihuly to create glass artwork as sets to go along with Bluebeard's Castle," Hege says. "We thought, why don't we try and see if we could secure those sets?”

Credit Sean Sandefur
Three Chihuly glass sculptures depicting "torture," "jewels" and "the kingdom."

The blown glass vaults 12-feet into the concert hall. Altogether the installation weighs 9,000 pounds. Seven sections, seven ominous secrets, all locked behind doors in Bluebeard’s Castle. The secrets are revealed to the audience as Bluebeard reveals them to his new and inquisitive wife, Judith.

Credit Sean Sandefur
The pointed ends of Chihuly's depiction of "torture."

“She notices locked doors in the castle. And she starts to get curious," Hege says. "Well, what's behind these? And Bluebeard says it's best if they're just left closed.

Judith persuades him and Bluebeard finally gives her a key to the first door. It's a torture chamber represented by an impressive red sculpture.

Two dozen red spears are bursting through the black podium. The illuminated glass shines, mimicking the blood running down their sides. The image is striking, the pointed ends perfectly capturing the moment.

The seventh and final door is where Bluebeard’s wife learns of her own, twisted fate.  

Credit Sean Sandefur
Bulbous, organic shapes meant to represent the fire and explosions of an armory.

“And the music is very dramatic at this point, very demented sounding,” Hege explains.

Behind the seventh door are Bluebeard’s former wives, suspended in a state between dead and alive. Each woman wears a different shade of daylight: magenta for dawn, bright yellow for noon, and orange for dusk. Judith soon realizes she’ll be joining them as the black of night.  

“It's a chilling story and it's very beautiful. It's very macabre in a way," Hege says. "I think this is really an allegory about the soul, an allegory about the human psyche.”

The harmony between the music and the visual spectacle of Chihuly glass can’t be overstated. Bartok’s dark composition, and the powerful, resonating voices of Samuel Ramey and Nancy Maultsby bring to life Bluebeard’s Castle.