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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Opera Review: The Ghosts in the Darkness

Yannick and the Philadelphians visit Duke Bluebeard's Castle.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
What key is it in? Bluebeard and his wife.
Illustration by Gustave Dore.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin jumped to the forefront of conductors in the musical conscience of musically conscious New Yorkers last year when he became the newest music director in the history of the Metropolitan Opera. On Tuesday night, opera lovers got a taste of his abilities in that genre when he brought the Philadelphia Orchestra to Carnegie Hall for a performance of Béla Bartók's lone opera: Duke Bluebeard's Castle.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's reputation rests squarely on what industry folks call "the Philly Sound", a rich, intoxicating brew of instruments anchored by the ensemble's cello section. This gorgeous sound was at the center of the opening pages of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." However, the only dancer onstage was Mr. Nézet-Séguin, who moved constantly, baton in hand as his players poured forth the familiar themes of this ballet.

Tchaikovsky's flaw is a propensity for repetition and bombast, and forty minutes of dance tunes from a ballet score can be heavy going. However, Mr. Nézet-Séguin conducted with a quicksilver beat that made the music spread its wings and fly, even as leaden brass and percussion strove to keep the music earthbound. The final pages feature Tchaikovsky at his most Wagnerian, a swelling close of harps and shimmering divided strings that recall the composer's revised ending for Der fliegende Holländer. Not coincidentally, this is the next opera Mr. Nézet-Séguin will lead at the Met.

Duke Bluebeard's Castle (its Hungarian title is "A kékszakállú herceg vára") is the least Wagnerian opera one could imagine. Bartók famously rejected Wagner's method of "leading motives" for his own system, that uses orchestral color, the intervals between notes and repeated use of the tritone to create an atmosphere of dread, oppression, brief, dazzling sunlight and then, gloom once more. It is also a story of newlywed trust, between the innocent Judith and Bluebeard himself, a fairytale murderer who is equal parts man and beast.

The opera began with its famous spoken prologue, uttered in a bass voice from offstage through carefully placed speakers. This invitation to "ladies and gentlemen" to attend the tale at hand reminds one of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci which employs a similar device. Then John Relyea and Michelle DeYoung entered, taking opposite sides of the conductor's podium in the dim, almost parochial light.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin led his singers with an expert balance between Ms. DeYoung's big, sometimes unwieldy mezzo voice and Mr. Relyea, whose resource of deep, black bass notes deepened and expanded as the opera rolled forward. An electronic, spectral "whoosh" was employed for the "sighing" of the castle, and the feeling of dread increased as Judith was handed the keys to her new kingdom by her reluctant groom.

Watching this performance it is inviting to speculate on Bartók's views of the battle between the sexes. Bluebeard starts the opera as the dominant party, ominous and controlling, seeming to go out of his way to scare off his new bride. Judith's determination to uncover his secrets imperils her of course, but she refuses to be intimidated. Indeed, as the climactic Fifth Door (accompanied by trumpets and trombones playing from the Dress Circle) opened onto a view of Bluebeard's golden fief, Ms. DeYoung assumed the power in the relationship, demanding the last two keys as Bluebeard yearned to kiss her.

This led to the most remarkable moment in this score, a whooshing, eerie chord that marked the opening of the sixth door and the unveiling of the lake of tears that was concealed therein. Bartók's orchestral effect here was stated with a chilly purpose, setting the stage for the opera's horrifying final pages. This was a very different kind of apotheosis than the Tchaikovsky, the enshrinement (and imprisonment) of Judith as the latest woman in Bluebeard's collection. The work ended in deafening silence.

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