Washington National Opera’s decision to open the current season with Béla Bartók’s tortured, none-too-stage-friendly Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was a brave one. It takes guts to sidestep the standard-rep chestnuts and glossy spectacles so beloved of D.C.’s traditionalist opera base in favor of a 20th-century work that doesn’t give up its secrets too readily.

But the company seems to have devoted less thought to bringing Bluebeard fully to life onstage. Bartók’s sole opera is more like a tone poem with voices than a sung drama, with Béla Balázs’ libretto distilling the conversation between the wife-murdering duke and his latest bride, Judith, into an abstract sort of Q&A. Unrelievedly grim and slow-moving—yet enlivened with all manner of lurid orchestral scene-painting—it’s a story played out on a subconscious plane, and it’s probably best listened to with eyes closed.

That doesn’t mean Bluebeard can’t be wrestled into a stageworthy form. But set designer Gottfried Pilz can’t seem to make up his mind how best to do that. One minute, actor Neno Pervan is delivering Balázs’ evocative spoken prologue floating, Magrittelike, among the clouds. The next, Bluebeard and Judith arrive via mist-shrouded gondola, à la Phantom of the Opera. And when the couple arrives at the eponymous castle, the numbingly literal, way too brightly lit set that greets us consists of a rickety staircase, a fallen chandelier, and a pair of haunted-house doors, all of which look like they might have been manufactured back during the Rudolf Bing years at the Met.

More frustrating, though, is what we see beyond those doors. In what exists of a plot, Judith demands that Bluebeard open his seven, bolted doors and unlock all his secrets. The doors reveal blood-stained gold, blood-soaked gardens, a lake of human tears, and so on, until the final door opens onto the ghosts of Bluebeard’s murdered wives. A designer can render these images realistically, abstractly, or not at all. Pilz throws in a little of each, willy-nilly, to ever-diminishing effect. So we get washes of theatrical light, grainy projections of famous paintings, dead-wife puppets—yes, gauzy puppets of the former Mrs. Bluebeards that are flown around the stage like kites, in the grandest Halloween fashion. The whole production looks ill-conceived and done on the cheap—far below WNO’s current standards.

Fortunately, things look up a bit in the singing department. It was clearly an audience-luring idea to cast star bass Samuel Ramey and the District’s favorite hometown mezzo, Denyce Graves, as Bluebeard and Judith. But it turns out to be a successful pairing on purely musical terms as well, with the dark-hued command of Ramey’s voice (loosened vibrato notwithstanding) naturally suited to his character’s lines, and Graves’ thrilling chest voice well used in a low-lying role that rarely draws her into her now-shredded upper register. Graves is also adept at suggesting Judith’s initial tenderness to Bluebeard, and her mounting unease as each door produces a greater horror. Ramey appears content here to let his glacial, Mount Rushmore–like expression suggest Bluebeard’s introversion and his regal posture to stand in for threatening power. What we miss is the ache of loneliness and the sense of imprisonment to his own endlessly repeated behavior—qualities that can humanize and give tragic dimension to the character (as the best interpreters of the role have shown).

Of course, director William Friedkin presumably had something to do with these characterizations—though, aside from playing down Judith’s shrewish side (which has turned more than one production of this opera into a misogynistic, she-had-it-comin’ rant), his directorial hand barely registers here, either in the pace-and-pose staging or in the lack of moment-to-moment specificity in the singers’ interactions. You might imagine that the director of such films as The French Connection and The Exorcist would have brought greater dynamism to this staging. But if there’s a constant that gets reinforced season after season, it’s that film directors become very different—even unrecognizable—animals on the operatic stage.

The production gets little help from the pit. Giovanni Reggioli conducts with such caution, such literalism, that Bartók’s pictorial effects go for nothing, the range from quiet dread to white-knuckle terror in the score gets ironed into a low-volume, low-tension string of notes, and one of the most arrestingly orchestrated of operas is reduced to a grumble and a shrug.

But if the WNO Bluebeard is a low point in the company’s recent production history, the good news is that its hourlong running time necessitates a second opera on the program, and this time the team gets it right. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi—named after the unscrupulous lawyer who helps a Florentine family change a dead relative’s will so they can rake in his wealth—is one of those surefire operatic comedies that takes a Herculean effort to kill off completely. Awash in the composer’s trademark lyricism and loaded with cynical wit, the piece offers a lot more than just its exhaustively excerpted greatest hit, “O Mio Babbino Caro.” Forget that all Bluebeard and Schicchi have in common are their 1918 premiere dates, and that any number of other companion pieces would have made more thematic sense on a double bill. As complete non sequiturs go, Puccini’s work is an entertaining one to pair with Bartók’s.

Everything that doesn’t work in Bluebeard works in Schicchi. Pilz’s attractive box set contains sly references to Bluebeard’s, from the carried-over chandelier and staircase to a laugh-out-loud sendup of the dead-spirit puppets. Friedkin is conspicuously more engaged by Puccini’s motley crew of faux-mourners, and if he lays on the Italian stereotypes a bit too thick, it’s with a wink. Reggioli is a new man in the pit, drawing refulgent playing from the orchestra and allowing the big melodies to bloom. Even Ramey has a fine old time, showing an unexpected flair for sly comedy. The ensemble of 15 singers is cast from strength—including current and former members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program—with tenor Antonio Gandia, a standout as Rinuccio, and soprano Amanda Squitieri, appropriately girlish as Lauretta.

It’s regrettable that the TLC lavished on Schicchi couldn’t have found its way to the opera that really needed the help. WNO’s thinking is admirable—not just in selecting Bartók to open a season of opera in this town but in putting together its most forward-thinking, audience-challenging program in decades. Now, if it can just extend that nontraditional thinking to artistic team-building for productions like Bluebeard, it can get those worthy decisions moving in real, perception-changing ways.CP

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