Ravel, Bartók operas to take stage

Tick, tock, tick, tock.

The members of Yale Opera are counting down to this weekend’s performances of Maurice Ravel’s one-act operatic comedy, “L’heure espagnole” and Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Both were composed in 1911 and will be performed in a double feature at Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Memorial Hall.

“L’heure espagnole” (“The Spanish Hour”) which takes place in Toledo, Spain, in the shop of the clockmaker Torquemada, is a musical farce that depicts Torquemada’s wife, Concepción, attempting to carry on her love affairs freely as he spends the day attending to the municipal clocks. However, as various characters arrive at Torquemada’s shop — first a muleteer, Ramiro, followed by Concepción’s lovers, Gonzalve, a poet, and Don Inigo, a banker — Concepción, instead of enjoying the pleasures of her bedroom, spends her day shuttling her lovers upstairs and downstairs in grandfather clocks to hide her affairs from Ramiro.

In contrast to the hilarity of “L’heure espagnole,” “Bluebeard’s Castle,” another one-act opera, is an intense psychological drama where a wife unwittingly unlocks her husband’s darkest secrets. Originally performed in Hungarian, the opera features only two onstage characters, Bluebeard and the newlywed Judith. Upon arriving at Bluebeard’s castle, Judith discovers seven locked doors and insists that all the doors be opened. Although Bluebeard initially resists, Judith eventually prevails. Each door reveals a room more fantastic than the door before, until Judith unlocks the final door that leads to her doom.

Of the night’s program, stage director Vera Calabria said that each opera reveals a distinct side of marriage.

“Instead of contradicting each other, each opera reveals a different path that can be taken by a marriage,” she said. “Whereas one wife [Concepción in “L’heure espagnole”] seeks to escape the boredom of her marriage by taking a series of lovers, another wife [Judith of “Bluebeard’s Castle”] instead attempts to discover who her husband really is and pays dearly for it.”

Calbria added that both scores require a high degree of involvement from the performers, which is difficult as they constantly enter and exit the stage. She also emphasized the various challenges that each opera posed for the performers, stating that finding the proper comedic timing and rhythm was the most difficult part of “L’heure espagnole.”

“Since the clocks are semi-transparent, Gonzalve and Don Inigo [played by tenor Zach Borichevsky MUS ’08 and bass Nicholas Masters MUS ’08] must be very conscious of their actions when they are inside the clock,” she said. “But instead of staying still within in their clocks, their improvised movements within the clock, rather than being distracting, added to the hilarity of the scene.”

On the other hand, the challenges of staging “Bluebeard’s Castle” lay in unpacking the complexity of Bartók’s score and libretto.

“ ‘Bluebeard’s Castle,’ although only an hour long, is intensely draining for both the performers and the audience,” Calabria said, “so it is important to deconstruct the score to clarify the action.”

Bass-baritone Damien Pass MUS ’09, who plays Duke Bluebeard in “Bluebeard’s Castle,” agreed with Calabria’s assessment.

“Because Bluebeard’s motives are unclear, sustaining the tension in an opera which can easily become static requires Bluebeard’s continual response to subtle shifts to Judith’s behavior in order to sustain the audience’s attention,” he said.

Yale School of Music voice instructor Richard Cross, the Bard in “Bluebeard’s Castle,” commented upon the universal psychological aspects of the opera.

“Each person has their own Judith, their own dark secrets to hide. Despite having dealt with “Bluebeard’s Castle” for over 48 years, the opera remains endlessly interesting to me. Every time I revisit it, new layers of meaning are revealed,” he said as the stage of Morse Recital Hall was suddenly bathed in blood-red light, seemingly echoing Cross’ words.

For Cross, the rarity of Hungarian in opera adds to the individuality of “Bluebeard’s Castle.”

“It’s a completely different musical language from that of Puccini’s, for example,” he said. “Hungarian places almost every accent on the first syllable of the words, which creates a pulse throughout the score that heightens the tension of the opera. It’s nothing like an Italian legato.”

Yale Opera will stage Ravel’s “L’heure espagnole” and Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” Friday and Sunday at Sprague Memorial Hall. Student tickets are $5.

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