“Where is the stage: is it outside or within?” With those spoken opening lines to Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the Bard invites the audience to choose: trust your eyes for the next hour of opera or go much deeper to find the storyline. Director Romeo Castellucci leaves little choice in his intense psychodrama of two souls seeking redemption but finding none. It is finely done, the first half of a double bill at the Salzburg Festival that fizzled with his second offering, Carl Orff’s opera-oratorio De temporum fine comoedia.

Aušrinė Stundytė (Judith)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

Bluebeard's Castle is overlaid with symbolism, even in versions hewing closer to the original stage directions laid down by the composer. Each of the seven doors of Bluebeard's castle that he opens at the urging of Judith, his new bride, reveals more of his sordid secrets while further confirming her suspicions. Bluebeard has murdered Judith’s predecessors and plans the same fate for her. While each door hides different riches – his wealth, his empire, his garden of beautiful flowers  – they are all stained with blood. As she proceeds irrevocably to her doom, Judith also serves as the vehicle that delves into Bluebeard’s inner being. But what has propelled her to seek Bluebeard’s love, even at the cost of her own destruction, remains a mystery.

Mika Kares (Bluebeard) and Aušrinė Stundytė (Judith)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

Not so in Castellucci’s psychothriller. The curtain rises to the sound of a baby’s cries and a woman’s anguished supplications. Are they those of a mother who has just killed her own child? Suspicion grows as she appears with a dead infant in her arms. And so Judith's role is no longer that of the instrument stripping away Bluebeard’s secret. She has her own sin and is seeking atonement by bringing light into the duke’s dark world. And it seems to be working for a while. Each door that opens brings a ray of sunshine into the gloomy castle walls... until the seventh door reveals Bluebeard’s former wives. As Judith prepares to join them, Bluebeard tells her that each brought beauty to his world; one created the sunrise, the other the splendidly bright noon and the third the peaceful sunset Now, Judith has done the same for the night.

There are no doors in Castellucci's production, at least none that can be seen. It’s clear that Judith perceives them, and Bluebeard’s answers show that they’re real for him as well. But it's all playing out in their minds. The stage is dark and bare, suddenly flames flare and water floods the stage, a symbol both for the lake fed by “tears of sorrow” behind the sixth door and those shed on the couple’s journey of inner discovery. One set of flames forms and word “ich” – “I” – reflecting the principals’ search for self-identity. It is a journey where Judith leads the way. 

Aušrinė Stundytė (Judith) and Mika Kares (Bluebeard)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

With a bass that caresses more often than threatens, Mika Kares was an unusually gentle Bluebeard, ceding dominance to Aušrinė Stundytė expressive vocal and dramatic theatrics. Bluebeard chokes Judith at one point; she threatens with a knife at another. Yet, they were in harmony in voice and action. As for the diction, Kares’ Hungarian pronunciation was excellent, Stundytė's less so. 

Teodor Currentzis and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra did Bartók’s tonality proud. The orchestra’s C major tutti as the fifth door opened, revealing Bluebeard’s realm, was heart-stopping. But this is only one example of the thoughtfulness and devotion Currentzis paid to a score stacked with string tremolos, bold brass outbursts, gentle woodwinds, shimmering arpeggios and sudden peaks. Currentzis opened each musical door with intensity and precision, underpinning the vocal dialogue with sensitivity and élan.

Helena Rasker's Bard concludes the prologue with the following words: “The stage lies without and within. Let Bluebeard's performance begin! The curtain has risen on Bluebeard's hall – please applaud when it must fall.” I did, enthusiastically, for a wonderful first part of an evening that left little – yet all – to the imagination. 

The Sibyls in De temporum fine comoedia
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

Not so much for Orff's choral opera-oratorio. While well performed, it seemed to have been chosen to fill out the evening. The story of two rival religious dogmas ends with the triumph of the one promising salvation to reformed sinners over the other threatening them with the horrors of Hell. Drums and cymbals crash, choirs drone on and off stage, and sibyls scream warnings at sinners of eternal tortures while choking children to death. It all ends with Lucifer’s uttered Pater peccavi (Father I have sinned) as he strips from a black robe to white. He is granted redemption. As are those in the audience who found the way there too long, too repetitive and too in your face. Particularly after the subtlety of Castellucci's Bartók.