Canadian baritone Gerald Finley returns to the Met this month to sing Duke Bluebeard, the mysterious and menacing character at the heart of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, half of a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, opening January 24. Celebrated for his dramatic force and nuanced acting, Finley recently spoke with the Met’s Jay Goodwin about finding the humanity in one of the repertoire’s most malevolent figures.
You were last seen at the Met as the pious Athanaël in Thaïs, and before that as the heroic title character in Guillaume Tell. But lately you’ve turned your attention to villainous roles like Puccini’s Scarpia, Verdi’s Iago, and, now, Bartók’s Bluebeard. Have you gone to the dark side?
Well, I started off with Don Giovanni, who wasn’t exactly the nicest guy in the world. I’ve also done Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande and Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress. And Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier isn’t a great model of propriety. So the darker side of characters is not something I’m unfamiliar with. And I think the whole essence of drama is this struggle between good and evil, so somebody has to play the baddie. I’m too eager an actor to want to deny myself those opportunities and the broad range of characterizations that can go with these roles.
In addition to being evil, Bluebeard is one of the most enigmatic roles in the repertoire. His new wife, Judith, arrives at his castle and slowly uncovers more and more of his grisly behavior, including the murder or enslavement of his three previous wives. But it’s never really clear exactly what he’s up to. What’s your take on him?
It’s all about the history. What we’re doing is uncovering Bluebeard’s past, effectively. Is it his whole soul that we’re looking at? Is it his character? Is his soul his castle, in other words? And as Judith explores the castle and opens, door by door, each element of his character, he seems reassured by her declarations of love. He feels reassured that he can then make himself perhaps more vulnerable, reveal the next dark element of his kingdom.
That’s an interesting perspective because I think many people would be less generous about his motivations.
Certainly. Some people would say he’s just accumulating a final wife to go with the three that have come before. But while he obviously inflicts pain on others, I think he probably experiences pain too. So there’s this dichotomy of callousness and yet wanting to experience a life beyond pain. And Judith is so passionate that one can see why a very psychologically withheld character like Bluebeard would go for her. There’s a sense that maybe she will bring out the life in him. With her passion, she will try to unlock his.
You mentioned the opportunities for an actor in these dark roles. But there’s so little action in Bluebeard’s Castle—basically some dialogue and the opening of seven doors. So what does it mean in a piece like this to be a convincing actor?
First, as always, I have to sing as best as I can. That means being as clear vocally as possible, not trying any forced effects, not lingering in a singer-comes-first sort of way. The dialogue in this piece is often delivered over sustained chords, with nothing rhythmic at all happening, so it can be very speech-like. My goal as an actor is to convince an audience that the character is being sincere.
So would you say that you approach Bluebeard fundamentally as a human drama between two individuals, rather than as a fable or a sort of nightmare scenario from the dark places inside our minds, as it is often described?
I am a creature of the stage, and I believe that real relationships are interesting to watch. I think that’s why we like going to the theater, because we can all share in the characters’ journeys. Often, those journeys, like our own, don’t go as hoped or planned. So then what? How do they, how do we, get out of those situations? Looking at other people’s challenges, I think, is a way to link us all. So, yes, Bluebeard is a nightmare. It is a fable in terms of showing what can happen if one is too spontaneous in an unknown relationship. But that’s the simplistic version. That’s why we need the music, and that’s why we need to play it as sincerely as possible for it to be credible. I always want to feel that the emotional state of the character is legitimate.
Bluebeard is musically fascinating, as well. Bartók’s musical language is so individual.
It’s so wonderful—a kaleidoscope of color. There are so many scenarios being presented, both emotionally and theatrically, with the seven doors and the tensions in between, and that makes the music. Bartók takes every movement toward the opening of each door and increases the pressure, and then it’s finally relaxed each time Bluebeard agrees to give Judith the key. Bartók must have been thrilled at the task of rising to this story. I can feel the excitement of his composition.
It sounds like you’ve really fallen in love with this new addition to your repertoire.
Every day that I spend with this piece, I find new things in it. That’s really the joy of learning roles: You keep hearing and keep discovering and finding new material. I’ve always enjoyed that with Mozart and Verdi. You can never get to the bottom of it. So this is another treasure to keep exploring.
Jay Goodwin is the Met’s Editorial Director.