The Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by James Levine, presented concert performances of two short yet powerful operas by 20th-century giants: Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (libretto by Jean Cocteau and Jean Daniélou) and Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (libretto by Béla Belázs) on Thursday evening, Jan. 6.
In many ways, these two works are rather alike: they were both written around the same time — the Stravinsky in 1927, the Bartók in 1911; both are retellings of much older stories; both address topics of dark, psychological depth; and both were conceived with minimal staging that makes them ideal for concert presentation. Even the structures of the two are similar in that each story is told using small, fairly symmetrical dramatic events that are linked together to create a whole. However, these similarities are, for the most part, peripheral. When it comes to musical and dramatic expression, to the communication of characters’ thoughts and feelings, the two works could hardly be more different. In the largest-scale sense, the BSO’s performance was a great success in that it brought these differences to the fore, allowing each work to display its character to the fullest.
Though Stravinsky is an uncontested master of technique — harmonic, rhythmic, instrumental, when it comes to emotional expression, his music is, by his own admission, somewhat dispassionate. This characteristic is particularly evident in his vocal writing. The story of Oedipus Rex is fraught with visceral tension; but Stravinsky’s writing, though compelling and often exciting, treats this tension with an almost frigid aloofness. It is therefore up to the singers to infuse the characters with emotive dimensions. Tenor Russell Thomas, in the role of Oedipus, did just that. With his bright yet beefy voice, he used the part’s strenuously high tessitura to take his character into flights of boldness, anger, fear, and despair. His Rex was a king not only straining against the cold inevitability of fate, but also against the stark impartiality of the music he was singing, and though Oedipus loses his battle, Thomas triumphed in his. So, too, did mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who was able to give Jocasta an unexpected level of depth. This role is perhaps the most difficult in the opera; from a narrative standpoint, she is a powerful and pivotal presence, but the singer only gets one aria and a duet to establish that presence musically. DeYoung’s take on Jocasta was subtly sultry and a bit off kilter; an unusual dramatic choice, but one that she carried out beautifully and that gave the character much more dimension than does the music. The other roles are given even less time to establish their import, presenting a challenge to those singing these parts — one that was difficult to overcome in this performance. Baritone Albert Dohmen as both Creon and the Messenger seemed to be swallowed up by the orchestra most of the time. Similarly, Raymond Aceto’s Tiresias was powerfully declamatory, but he had difficulty getting the lower pitches to speak. And the role of the Sheppard is simply too small to allow Mathew Plank’s mournful tenor voice to bring the depth to the music that it could have. The Narrator was convincingly read by actor Frank Langella. His voice was strong and his approach lent a stalwart distance to the part that was appropriately Greek-Chorus-like.
It might be interesting to mention that, in 1982, a scheduled BSO performance of Oedipus Rex with intended narrator Vanessa Redgrave was cancelled because of the actress’s pro-Palestinian views. Redgrave brought suit against the BSO’s administration for violation of her rights under the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Act; but in 1987, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the BSO. It was a sad contradiction that such a cosmopolitan work — a Russian composer’s setting of a Greek tragedy with a French libretto translated into Latin — should fall victim to such provincial politics. Thankfully, this performance was spared the pettiness. (Note: While this reviewer does not know Mr. Langella’s politics, he does know that, when it comes to music-making, they are irrelevant.)
In terms of expression and depth of feeling, Bartók’s music is the polar opposite of Stravinsky’s. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is masterpiece of emotional richness. While his orchestration is not as ambitious as Stravinsky’s, it does serve a more integrated dramatic role: sensuous, lush, and sometimes haunting strings convey sadness, loneliness, and deep internal conflict; bright, dazzling winds color the bloodily bejeweled surroundings of the castle and its inhabitant’s soul; and huge, solid brasses give tangible weight to the cold pomposity of it all. Levine seemed particularly in his element here as he exploited all the boldness and subtleties of this music, giving it a multilayered character that is often missing in other performances. Though Albert Dohmen’s Creon might not have been entirely successful, he more than made up for it with his portrayal of Bluebeard. With his edgy, full-bodied voice, Dohmen was able to conjure a man who is cold and emotionless on the outside, who wants so desperately to be loved, yet cannot show his desperation for fear of losing control to guilt. Those psychological layers are built into the music, but it takes a true artist to convey them as successfully as Dohmen did. The real star in this performance, however, was Michelle DeYoung. Judith’s part is technically much more varied and complex than Bluebeard’s, reflecting the emotional waves and troughs of this character. DeYoung’s Judith was innocent, pleading, slightly coy, ever more insistent, and finally terrified. It was in large part due to her that the listener could forget this performance was not staged and instead imagine a darkly bright, coldly burning setting for this magnificent work.