Teatro La Fenice 2019-20 Review: A Hand Of Bridge/Bluebeard’s Castle

Fabio Ceresa’s Direction Makes for an Imaginative & Visually Stunning Double Bill

By Alan Neilson
(Credit: Michele Crosera)

The Teatro La Fenice’s pairing of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Samuel Barber’s “A Hand of Bridge” certainly made for an interesting and unusual double bill, although the relationship between the works was not immediately evident. This was recognized by the director Fabio Ceresa who explored possible connections, but finding none, opted to stage them as two distinct, independent works.

Interestingly, the two operas demand different directorial approaches. “Bluebeard’s Castle” is a one act expressionist work lasting one hour, and requires the director to provide an interpretation which focuses on the characters’ fundamental psychological needs and drives, one which allows the audience to understand the deep motivations at work and give shape to what is superficially a fairly straightforward narrative. It is on this point that the non-musical side of the production will be deemed to have either succeeded or failed. Such is the nature of the work, however, that the director has a lot of leeway in this matter, for although it contains a substantial amount of symbolic references, they are not always prescribed symbols and choices about their meaning are open to interpretation. There have been numerous ingenious productions, but also some duds, especially where the director has shied away from adopting such an approach and treated it as the simple fairy story it appears to be.

Written in 1959 to a libretto by Carlo Menotti, “A Handful of Bridge” is a very different work, not least in that it has a running time of only approximately nine minutes, in which four characters reflect on the emptiness, isolation and disappointments of their lives over a game of bridge. The director has very little time in which to establish the characters so that the audience can a connect with them, or to relate and sympathize with their reflections. It requires a sure hand and an imaginative approach for the work to be brought immediately alive, in a meaningful way.

Ceresa was certainly up to the task, producing two finely crafted stagings which fully engaged the audience.

Bluebeard’s Castle

What is the really going on in Bluebeard’s castle? Why is Judith so keen to see behind the seven  doors? What do the rooms represent? Is he murdering/imprisoning his wives? Ceresa answers were insightful and provocative, which when translated to the stage made for a stunning piece of theater.

For Ceresa the tale is about having to face death, the culmination of life’s experiences. Each room represents an aspect common to each individual’s life: room one, the torture chamber, represents the pain each of us suffers over the course of our lives; room two, the armory, the pain we inflict upon others; room three, the treasury, our material possessions and so on. In the final room there are his three wives which represent the three phases of life: young, middle and old age. Judith, his forth wife, signifies death. She has come to release Bluebeard from life. Thus it is that she insists on seeing behind each door, making Bluebeard confront his life, so he is ready to face death. In each room we see a past representation of Bluebeard, who Judith kisses, upon which he dies, symbolically putting this aspect of Bluebeard’s life to rest. Obviously, Bluebeard vigorously resists Judith’s demands to open the final door. But he does open it and accepts the inevitability of death as the final part in everyone’s life journey.

Aided by the scenographer Massimo Checchetto, costume designer Giuseppe Palella and the lighting designer, Fabio Barettin, Ceresa not only successfully presented his innovative interpretation of the work, but did so with a visually stunning and dramatically strong staging. Each room was a spectacle in itself, defined by a dominant color within a distinct cultural context, so that the treasury was given a golden Arabian theme, and the sixth room signifying bereavement was set in Venice, with dense mist swirling around a gondola as it passed across the stage, under a violet light. The final scene sees the dead Bluebeard take his place alongside his past selves in the three different phases of his life, seated or standing next to his wife, thus bringing his life’s journey to an end.

A Hand of Bridge

 Although little more than a light hors d’oeuvre before the main course, “A Hand of Bridge” made for an interesting and dramatically taught piece, in which Ceresa managed to successfully bring life to the four distinct personalities and their very personal musings. As in “Bluebeard’s Castle” he uses color to convey meaning, so that the walls of the lounge and table are colored in shades of grey, symbolizing the lack of color in the lives of the four players, whilst their dreams and obsessions are presented in pink, so for example, the hat which Sally craves is pink, and Bill’s mistress, who he is worried is being unfaithful to him, appears dressed in pink. It was an effective device for quickly drawing details to the audience’s attention, who had barely time to settle into the performance before it was over.

The Music

The two pieces are musically very different. While “A Hand of Bridge” is quintessentially an American piece, incorporating Jazz rhythms and sounds, with a chamber music intimacy, “Bluebeard’s Castle” is a heavier work, with a large orchestra which moves between volcanic deafening passages and more intimate delicate sections, and despite not being an atonal work, substantial use is made of dissonance and polytonal sections.

Under the management of the conductor Diego Matheuz, the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice produced dramatically satisfying and detailed performances of both works. The rhythmic vitality of “A Hand of Bridge” was expertly rendered, and contrasted sharply with the carefully developed intensity of “Bluebeard’s Castle,” in which the dynamic contrasts were wonderfully managed; the build up to the opening of the fifth door, in which the orchestra builds to fortissimo was spine-tinglingly delivered. Matheuz ensured that the orchestra was always under control, that the singers had the necessary space and were never overwhelmed, even during the louder passages.

The Singers

Bass-baritone Gidon Saks and soprano Aušrine Stundyte were parted as Bluebeard and Judith, as well as the principal singers, David and Geraldine in “A Hand of Bridge.”

As David, Saks gave a formidable performance, dominating the stage as the businessman who dissatisfied with his career muses on what he would do if he were rich and successful, in which he also gives voice to his repressed sexual fantasies. Saks’ powerful characterization was founded upon his ability to subtly mold the vocal line to elicit the full meaning of text, and improvised a convincing American drawl for good measure.

In the role of Bluebeard, Saks was again in fine voice, producing a expressive and nuanced performance of quality. His voice possesses an appealing timbre, which he colored and accented with skill and imagination to create a finely drawn portrait of a man who is forced to face his own mortality. It is also a strong voice, one able to rise without any loss of quality or power, enabling him to combat the demanding orchestra, which vigorously asserted itself as the drama unfolded.

Aušrine Stundyte’s portrayal of Geraldine, the middle aged wife whose reflections focus on the people who do not love her, and on her dying mother whom she regrets never having learned to love, was not particularly convincing. Whilst her stage presence was strong and her acting nicely crafted, her singing was not to the same standard. The voice was strong and expressive, but suffered from too much vibrato and a vocal line which lacked control.

In the role of Judith, however, Stundyte came into her own, producing a strong portrayal to match Saks’ Bluebeard. The two combined naturally with each other, as both immersed themselves fully in their characters and created a compelling and dynamically expressive relationship which captured the tensions between them. The more extreme the emotions became, the more they impressed. Stundyte cast off the vocal insecurities of Geraldine and produced a commanding vocal display, in which the voice was colorful, flexible and secure. Her ability to transition between the registers was excellent. It was a portrayal which went to the heart of the character.

The two other bridge players in Barber’s opera, Sally and Bill, were essayed by mezzo soprano Manuela Custer and tenor Christopher Lemmings. Custer’s strong and ebullient stage personality ensured that Sally, the smallest of the four roles, was strongly portrayed and clearly defined, in which her obsession with a new hat was amusingly presented, and underpinned by her frustrations of always being the “dummy.” Lemmings produced an equally successful rendition as the philandering husband, whose hypocrisy he neatly portrayed.

Despite there being no defining connection between the works, they complemented each other well, although the enforced interval following the end of “A Hand of Bridge” after only ten minutes was very disconcerting, with the audience feeling it necessary to head off for refreshments.

Although the pairing was certainly a success on many levels, what really elevated the production was Ceresa’s imaginative interpretation and splendid visual presentation, which had such a direct and emotional impact that one was left exhausted at the final curtain.


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