Gerald Finley, bringing the dark lord of “Bluebeard’s Castle” to life at Met Opera

January 24, 2019
By George Grella
Gerald Finley will sing the title role in "Bluebeard's Castle" beginning this week. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Gerald Finley will sing the title role in “Bluebeard’s Castle” beginning this week. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

On a recent weekday inside the Metropolitan Opera House, with a dress rehearsal of Pelléas and Mélisande going on, baritone Gerald Finley was backstage talking with a visitor about roles in dramatic music when a wisp of the rehearsal playing over the Met’s house speakers caught his ear.

“I love Golaud,” Finley said of the tormented prince in Claude Debussy’s lone opera. “I love the mystery of his past.”

A fascination with the stories, told and untold, that underlie operatic characters has helped Finley, 58, make a career that demolishes typecasting. Finley could well be in the current production of Pelléas, but he has a different Met assignment in store: the terrifying lead in Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók. Finley appears at the Met beginning Thursday in the acclaimed pairing from the 2014-15 season of two single-act operas staged by producer-director Mariusz Treliński, with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta as the opener.

Finley, to be clear, is not in Iolanta (which requires a tenor). But it’s somehow not a stretch to imagine a singer of his range and curiosity double-billing. On record and in recital has tackled Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Ned Rorem and Charles Ives. In operas, he has sung the comic Papageno in Die Zauberflöte and the dissolute Don Giovanni. He originated the character of Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic.

“The roles that I love very much are the ones that have a past and are struggling to come to terms with where they are in the drama as it’s set,” Finley said in a wide-ranging interview about his musical interests and experiences singing complex life into characters, from the comical to the Mephistophelian. In conversation, Finley revealed a deep appreciation for these imaginary figures and what goes into embodying them.

Even a figure as loathsome as Bluebeard gets the full measure of his insight and empathy.

“I’ve been quoted as saying I actually like trying to find the good side of the baddies!” said Finley, whose résumé includes a standout turn as the amoral Iago in Verdi’s Otello. “It’s really just to find the different layers where the catalyst for their actions comes from, and are they insensitive to their actions. Are they bringing baggage from their own personal experience?”

Finley cited his work with director Keith Warner on a production of Don Giovanni: “[W]e tried to play it that Giovanni had been severely traumatized by his youth, a father figure that had completely made him feel inadequate, so his own journey was about sorting out his own pride, and the [murder of] the Commendatore was the result of that anger.

“Of course when you do Don Giovanni you are fifteen characters in one, anyway,” Finley added. “Some directors make your job easier by costuming you differently.”

He’s done the “straightforward” roles, as he termed them, like Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky and the title character in Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro. “He just has a couple of ambitions, to have a good life,” Finley said of Figaro, “and musically that’s a lot of fun.”

At the same time, “The type of roles I’m really interested in are the ones that perhaps don’t give a lot away, and you can create backstory and live in there,” Finley said.

One of opera’s most sinister creations, Bluebeard is based on Charles Perrault’s ghastly fairy tale about a rich, depraved habitual murderer of his spouses who brings home a new bride, Judith. Once there, Judith (sung by soprano Angela Denoke) insists that Bluebeard open a series of doors, each revealing something magical about the castle and his existence. These wonders are a mix of lovely and ominous as the opera hurtles toward the seventh, final door, behind which lies Judith’s fate.

Bluebeard has something of Giovanni and Shadow in him, but is otherwise unique — both supernatural and human, soulful and psychopathic. Finley sees him in part as “kind of a blank slate,” and the process of Judith uncovering extremely unsettling information about her new husband is one by which Finley himself discovers, and conveys, the character.

“Whether she has come on her own, whether he’s pursued her or dragged her there, those are all good directorial things,” Finley said. “Mariusz Treliński has an absolute view of Bluebeard — this is part of the process: She is the next victim; he is a serial killer. There is this film noir element where there’s a mystery about him; one’s never sure what he’s thinking.”

There is also “the whole breakdown of his psyche, or the revelation of his psyche through her opening the doors of the castle — which is in fact him, his soul,” Finley said.

As grim as the character and opera can be, there is the consolation of Bartók’s music.

“What I love about this production is that in the middle of it, the revelation of door number four, the garden, which is unbelievable, Bartók talks [in the score] about the brightness on stage, the clarity,” Finley said.

“This is the most open the character ever is,” he said, citing the score’s evocation of bird sounds and light within the castle. “This is his soul at his most hopeful, generous.”

But the moment passes. “So then why does it all fall apart for Judith?” Finley said. “Is it that she asks too much, or he’s never had this with previous wives—there’s a trigger of some sort. In the opera we find a particular trigger, and then he closes down and it becomes very dark. In this version we decide that he is at peace, perhaps, with Judith in the grave.”

Bluebeard’s Castle was Bartók’s first and only opera, a notable work from a composer not generally noted for his vocal music. Finley said he finds the music “gorgeous,” and tangibly influenced by the other opera being rehearsed in the building.

“It just floats from Pelléas,” he said, adding, “from Strauss there are some of the harmonies.”

As he will be singing Bluebeard in composer Bartók’s native Hungarian, Finley also appreciates the insights of his conductor, Henrik Nánási, who is from Hungary. “Hungarians say that Bartók notated [music] in a way that only Hungarians could naturally respond to the text,” Finley said, “and of course non-native speakers have to have the help of the conductor to make lyricism out of the language.”

Harder still may be making a human being out of Bluebeard.

“He keeps repeating, ‘Why do you want this?’ ” Finley said of the character as he and Judith move from door to door, “and she says, ‘Because I love you.’ He’s not owning her, and I hope the way we’ve set it up is that in the beginning he doesn’t want to actually go through with this thing: ‘Why have you come? You could go back. You should go back to the place which is bright where your family is.’ All those things.

“She stays with a determination and justifies it by saying, ‘Because I love you,’ And he kind of loses his power in a funny sort of way because she says, ‘I’m here of my own power and I want to do this, and I want to find out who you really are.’ … That’s the dramatic thrust, that she overwhelms his stasis with love.”

Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle open 8 p.m. January 24 at the Metropolitan Opera and run through February 14.; 212-362-2000.

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