'Bluebeard's Castle' and 'Gianni Schicchi'

From the Washington National Opera

THE HIT SINGLE

In O mio babbino caro, one of opera's most familiar tunes, Gianni Schicchi's doting daughter Lauretta urges him to help out her boyfriend's greedy pack of relatives.

Denyce Graves with Samuel Ramey in 'Bluebeard's Castle'

hide captionSamuel Ramey is the murderous Bluebeard and Denyce Graves plays his unfortunate bride, in Bartok's thriller Bluebeard's Castle, at the Washington National Opera.

Karin Cooper

Every once in a while, a trip to the opera offers "two for the price of one," an operatic double bill, and the pairings are often predictable.

The most popular combination is probably the one known as "Cav-Pag": Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. Both operas are lurid, Italian dramas centering on illicit lust and murder — a pair of verismo potboilers.

The duo of operas we've got for you here also works like a charm, but it isn't nearly so obvious. One opera is Italian, the other is Hungarian. One has more than a dozen characters, the other has only two. One is a good-natured romp, while the other is a sordid psychological thriller. And while both operas appeared in the same year, 1918, their music could hardly be more different.

The "on deck" opera in this pairing is Giacomo Puccini's hilarious Gianni Schicchi. Admittedly, Schicchi is something of a black comedy, a satirical farce with a corpse taking center stage. And Puccini borrowed its premise from a source that's hardly a barrel of laughs: Canto 30 of Dante's Inferno. Still, black comedy or not, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi is one of the funniest operas you'll ever hear.

Leading off the double-header is Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. This one is gloomy from start to finish, though the score does achieve an oddly thrilling level of bleakness. We listen, a bit voyeuristically, as a young bride slowly discovers the hidden, sadistic side of her new husband's personality, and what it means for her own brief future.

World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents this surprising double bill from the Washington National Opera, where both productions were directed by William Friedkin — famous for the notoriously spooky movie The Exorcist. And there's an all-star cast, to boot. Samuel Ramey takes the title role in both operas, with Denyce Graves as Bluebeard's bride, Judith. Also, Lisa talks to Placido Domingo, the WNO's general director, about what makes this odd couple of operas so unexpectedly satisfying.

The Stories of 'Bluebeard's Castle' and 'Gianni Schicchi'

Denyce Graves as Judith

hide captionBluebeard's bride Judith (Denyce Graves) finds a sinister "lake of tears" while exploring her new husband's gloomy estate.

Karin Cooper
Amanda Squitieri and Samuel Ramey

hide captionLauretta (Amanda Squittieri) sweet talks her father, Gianni Schicchi (Samuel Ramey) into helping her boyfriend's pack of greedy relatives.

Karin Cooper
Samuel Ramey as Gianni Schicchi

hide captionDressed in the late Buoso Donati's night clothes, Gianni Schicchi assures the dead man's conniving relatives that he'll help them scam an undeserved inheritance.

WHO'S WHO?

  • In Bluebeard's Castle:
  • Samuel Ramey ......... Bluebeard
  • Denyce Graves ............. Judith
  • Neno Pervan ............... Narrator
  • In Gianni Schicchi:
  • Samuel Ramey .... Gianni Schicchi
  • Antonio Gandia .......... Rinuccio
  • Amanda Squitieri ....... Lauretta
  • Elizabeth Bishop ........... Zita
  • Leslie Mutchler .......... La Ciesca
  • Valeriano Lanchas ..... Simone
  • Robert Baker ............. Gherardo
  • Christina Marcos ........ Nella
  • Tony Teleky ............. Gherardino
  • Giovanni Reggioli, conductor

BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE:

After a spoken prologue, reminding us that we're about to hear a story of the mind, Duke Bluebeard returns to his castle with his new bride, Judith. She's elegantly dressed, in a silvery white dress with a bright red scarf. But the castle is dark and dank, there are no windows, and the walls sweat with moisture.

Judith has married Bluebeard against her family's wishes. But when he quizzes her about that, she says she has no regrets. As for the forbidding castle, she says she'll brighten the place up.

The castle has seven mysterious doors, and Judith's curiosity about what's behind them becomes her weakness. She needs to know Bluebeard's secrets, and she plays on her femininity to persuade her husband to unlock the first two.

When the first door opens, Judith sees shackles, daggers and branding irons. Blood is seeping from the walls. This is no rumpus room with a few whips and chains. It's a fully equipped torture chamber, and Bluebeard admits it. But when he asks Judith if that frightens her, she says no.

Behind the next door is Bluebeard's armory, containing an array of bloodstained weapons. Again, Judith says she is not afraid, and she insists on having the keys to all the doors. She says, "I came here because I love you. I am yours. Show me all your secrets."

The mood and the music change as the third door opens. Behind it are Bluebeard's immense riches. There are diamonds, gold and fabulous gowns of ermine. He offers her everything. Judith notices that all the precious gems are stained with blood.

Bluebeard encourages her to open door number four. It opens into a place of great beauty, a secret garden — where Judith glimpses spatters of blood on the roses.

The opening of the fifth door marks the high point in the musical arc of the opera. The huge orchestra, including an organ, blares triumphantly, and Judith lets out a loud cry as the door reveals a panoramic view of Bluebeard's entire kingdom. It's all hers if she wants it. A glorious light streams in, but the lands are awash with blood.

Bluebeard declares the last two doors off limits. But Judith is obsessed and sweet-talks Bluebeard into opening number six. As Judith turns the key, she can hear deep sighs and the sound of weeping. Behind the door is a strangely tranquil lake. "What sort of water is this?" she asks. Bluebeard admits that it's not water. It's a lake of tears.

Bluebeard begs Judith for kisses, but she's focused only on what's behind the final door. She has guessed his secret. She says the rumors must be true. He has murdered each of his three former wives.

When the seventh door is unlocked, Judith sees them, dressed in their finery — seemingly alive, but shimmering and ghostly. Bluebeard says he met one of his wives at daybreak, one at noon, and one in the evening. And now a fourth, at midnight. Bluebeard insists that she will be the queen of all his wives. Judith begs to be spared, but he takes the red scarf she's wearing and strangles her with it. After a brief struggle, he drops her to the ground, and Bluebeard is alone once more.

GIANNI SCHICCHI:

The opera opens in the home of Buoso Donati, a rich old Veronese gentleman who has just died in his bed. Listening to William Friedkin's production from the Washington National Opera, you'll hear a big laugh when the curtain rises, as audiences see a visual gag: A ghost, just like the many that flitted about in Bluebeard's Castle, quickly rises from the bed where Donati expires.

Family members are on the scene, including young Rinuccio, the old woman Zita, Donati's nephew Gherardo and his wife, and a few others. They're sad that the old man is dead, but not too sad. They're all after his money and property, and they've heard a rumor that he's left everything to the local monastery.

Everybody scurries around looking for the will. Rinuccio finds it, but he won't give it up until the family members consent to a deal: If he inherits any money, they must allow him to marry Lauretta, his lower-class sweetheart. They agree, then read the will. The rumors were true. Everything is going to the monks.

Rinuccio has an idea. He says there's only one person who can get them out of this jam: Lauretta's father, the shrewd Gianni Schicchi. In fact, Rinuccio has already sent for him. But the relatives tell him to forget it. Rinuccio's aunt says Schicchi is a low-rent commoner and won't be allowed in the house. What's more, since Rinuccio hasn't inherited a dime, he won't be allowed to marry Lauretta after all.

Schicchi's arrival with Lauretta causes a commotion. The relatives are outraged, but willing to hear any ideas he might have for salvaging their inheritance. Schicchi is offended by their upper-crust attitudes, and at first refuses to help. This sets up one of opera's best loved arias — "O mio babbino caro" — "Oh, my dear father." Lauretta begs her father to help Rinuccio's family so that she and Rinuccio can marry.

Schicchi is persuaded. He suggests that if none of the authorities know that Donati is dead, why not devise a new will? Schicchi will pose as a gravely ill Donati and dictate their wishes to a notary. Everyone agrees, and one by one, members of the family begin to bribe Schicchi, positioning themselves for a larger piece of the inheritance.

Donati's corpse is unceremoniously removed. Schicchi puts on the dead man's night clothes and gets into his bed. He grimly reminds everyone that people convicted of falsifying wills in Verona are invariably sent into exile — after having their hands chopped off.

The notary arrives, and Schicchi dictates the new will. He leaves a few bits and pieces to everyone there. But when he gets to the good stuff, the bulk of the estate plus the mansion they're all sitting in at that moment, the family is shocked to hear that it all goes to... Gianni Schicchi! As he's dictating — leaving the riches to himself — Schicchi reminds the relatives of their own helplessness by pointedly pantomiming a man with no hands.

When the notary leaves, Schicchi enthusiastically kicks everyone out of his newly inherited home, except for the young lovers Lauretta and Rinuccio, and asks the audience if there could possibly be a better use for his newfound fortune than his own daughter's dowry.

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