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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Concert Review: The Doors of Perception

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Bluebeard's Castle
Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Nicho Södling.
If Friday night's concert at Avery Fisher Hall is any indication, the three-week marriage of the New York Philharmonic and Finnish maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen is proving to be an effective match. Friday evening featured Béla Bartók's one-act opera Bluebeard's Castle, which presents a French fairy-tale marriage in stark, 20th century terms.

Under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the New York Philharmonic gave its audience a thrilling performance of this one-act, symbolist opera. As the tension built, the audience was perched on the edge of their seats, held in the grip of the drama of Bluebeard and his latest wife, Judith, and her exploration of the dark reaches of his castle. With help from a strong cast and an effective light show, Mr. Salonen made the opera not a horror story, but an exploration of the complexities of marriage and the dark depths of the male and female psyches.

Bartók started work on Bluebeard's Castle in 1911, but the work took a decade to find its way to the stage. His sole opera combines heavy, Wagnerian orchestration with clever use of woodwinds and unique textures that can only be described as "Bartókian." The libretto is based on the 1901 play Ariane et Barbe-bleu by Maurice Maeterlinck, which was  first set as an opera in 1907 by the composer Paul Dukas.

Mr. Salonen was blessed with a strong cast, considering that there are just two characters and a narrator (played by film actor Richard Easton.) Judith was sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. She rose to the occasion, pulling off the climactic high C that Judith hits at the midway point of the opera, and gave a convincing portrayal of fear and dread despite the formal evening wear and the concert setting.

As Bluebeard, bass Gábor Bretz displayed fine Hungarian diction throught. But he sounded slightly overmatched in the early pages of the opera, battling huge, dissonant chords as the doors of his keep are opened to reveal a torture chamber, armaments, and a garden. Mr. Bretz found his voice at the opening of the fifth door, singing with noble tone through the final pages of the opera. He was firm and resonant in Bluebeard's final peroration to his wife, and chilling in the final bars.

Mr. Salonen drew out the beauty in Bartók's score, making the work's most dissonant pages sound appealing. He conducted the work with an ear for detail and a sweeping, late-Wagnerian style that let the complex music bloom in the lush language of the full orchestra.

The Philharmonic players had their share of heroic moments. These included the titanic, hall-shaking brass fortissimo at the opening of the fifth door, and the eerie, mind-bending chords that accompany the opening of the sixth and the revelation of Bluebeard's lake of tears. Colored lights, electronic effects, and one memorable use of the house lights on full blast added to the complex presentation, pulling the Philharmonic audience into the drama.

The opera performance was part of Mr. Salonen's Hungarian Echoes festival, which matches Bartok's music with the 18th century symphonies of Haydn and the modern works of Györgi Ligeti. The evening opened with the latter's Concert Românesc, a playful composition in four movements. The 12-minute concerto featured a bravura violin part played by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, and a pair of echoing horns in the slow movement, meant to echo the sound of alphorns.

The Ligeti piece was paired with the Seventh Symphony by Franz Joseph Haydn. Nicknamed Le Midi, ("Noon") the work forms the central part of Haydn's "Times of the Day" triptych, which is being programmed throughout the festival by Mr. Salonen. Like the Ligeti work, Le Midi featured a thrilling series of violin solos, adroitly played by Mr. Dicterow. One could stretch the idea that these three symphonies echoed Bluebeard's wives--one for each time of the day, but otherwise it was difficult to see how Le Midi fit into this adventurous program.

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