in: Reviews

October 28, 2016

The Orchestra Was Bluebeard’s Castle

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Charles Dutoit concludes his two-week stint at Symphony Hall this weekend leading the BSO in Mozart 39, an old standby, and a much rarer bird, Bartók’s Prince Bluebeard’s Castle. The BSO program people insist on calling Bluebeard a duke, taking the word “herceg” in the Hungarian name, A Kékszákállú herceg vára, to be a cognate of the German “Herzog,” which does mean duke, but which translates as either “prince” or “duke” in Hungarian. Meanwhile, the translators’ references in the opera’s text to Bluebeard’s “kingdom” seem more appropriate to one of the higher rank. “Prince” is how it was always translated back in the day, so that’s what I’m going with. Charles Perrault, the best-known chronicler of the tale, is of no help here, as his Bluebeard was just some rich guy of unspecified title.

But back to Mozart. The E-flat symphony, K. 543, was the first of the composer’s final trilogy of symphonies, and despite its generally relaxed and genial demeanor is best-known for the searing dissonances that come practically out of nowhere in the slow introduction to the first movement.  It’s also well known for its use of clarinets instead of oboes, providing a softer, somewhat darker coloration to the wind lines. We’d characterize Dutoit’s reading as “middle of the road,” with some fine details but without anything really new to say on the subject, except in the second movement. His dotted rhythms in the slow introduction were pronounced but not exaggerated, not particularly crisp. The dissonances mentioned above were not prepared in any particularly telling way. The Allegro was casually lively, with a nice dynamic build-up to the end of the exposition. He allowed the winds to display and mellow out, particularly in the second subject. The slow movement, uncommonly structured by Mozart as a short sonata form, was probably the educational highlight of the performance, in which Dutoit pointed up the proto-Schubertian aspects of Mozart’s harmonic and timbral choices, again with ample breathing space for the winds, and with a deepening of the emotional fervor in the strings in the recapitulation of the main theme and in the coda. The minuet, Dutoit must have concluded, plays itself; there’s no other way to explain the waywardness of his baton hand, which if I were a player I’d have problems interpreting; he seemed to lead more by shrugging. My seat somewhat forward in the orchestra section didn’t afford much visibility to the middle of the orchestra on stage, so it wasn’t clear whether William Hudgins was taking the clarinet solos in this piece; but in any case they were silky smooth. The finale was fleet and liquid, with a development full of fun and harmonic misdirection whose infectiousness Dutoit and the band conveyed admirably well.

The BSO has done some wonderful things in recent years with concert performances of operas, and Bluebeard would fall right into line in that respect. As Marc Mandel’s program note astutely observed, the generally static dramaturgy of this two-character-plus-narrator piece, which diminishes its stageworthiness, makes it much more appealing in a concert performance. The libretto by Béla Balázs (né Herbert Bauer) veers rather from Perrault’s story line, and brings the tale into the realm of symbolist poetry and deep psychology. Prince (or Duke) Bluebeard brings his latest wife, Judith, to his castle, where she vows to brighten things up in the gloomy pile, primarily by throwing open the doors off the windowless central hall to let the light in (which also allows her to satiate her curiosity in light of some unsavory rumors about her husband). This makes Bluebeard nervous, but he indulges her up to a point, giving her the keys to these rooms one by one, where she discovers a) the torture chamber, b) the armory, c) the treasury (this perks up her spirits), d) the garden (likewise), and e) “the kingdom.” Trouble is, each of these places is, or is quickly found to be, stained—figuratively and literally—by blood. There are two more doors, but Bluebeard really doesn’t want her to open them; she persists, and they reveal, first, f) the Lake of Tears shed by Bluebeard’s previous wives, and, finally, g) the chamber in which those other wives reside, not dead, not exactly undead, but seemingly in perpetual stasis. Each wife Bluebeard met at a different time of day, morning, noon, evening, and now Judith of the night must join them. Whereas in the Perrault story Wife No. 4’s brothers beat the doors down and kill Bluebeard, this time Judith must be consumed in perpetual night along with her sister exes.

Bartók wrote Bluebeard in 1911, after he and Kodály had begun their investigations of Hungarian music, but before Bartók had quite developed the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic idiom for which the world knows him best. That makes this a fascinating transitional piece: he was keen to emphasize the Hungarian flavor of the music, and get away from the gypsifications that even he had used in major works like his Piano Quintet; but while there are delicious foretastes of phrases and motifs that recur in his later work (loved the movement by fourths and fifths in the low strings in the opening and closing sections, portents of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and the Concerto for Orchestra), Strauss would have been quite comfortable with the harmony, even the sharp minor seconds that form a recurring strain of bitter realization. Also the musical forces: one is reminded that in 1911 one could call for a huge orchestra that one would have to scramble for and have difficulty paying after the Great War. While the overall sound of the opera fits fairly comfortably with the more (but not the most) advanced writing of its period, and the depictions of the various rooms are generally just what you would expect—martial for the armory, fluttery for the garden, vastly expansive for the kingdom, including an organ part some consider among the best in 20th century music, though it repeats too often—the details offer many wonderful moments of originality, with some woodwind licks in the Lake of Tears section, for example, to make other composers envious (and that he later used in many of his “night music” movements).

The performances were exemplary from a musical standpoint. Ildikó Komlósi, mezzo, sang Judith with a dark intensity and robust insistence. This is a role she has taken several times before and, even granted that she is a native Hungarian speaker, it was impressive that she did so on this occasion without taking the concert-performance prerogative of using a score. Bluebeard was sung by Matthias Goerne, who is becoming a familiar name in Boston, and it was all in the voice here: heart of darkness, blackstrap molasses, no. 6 cracker-bottoms; yet his powerfully projected characterization was anything but a cardboard villain—in fact, his Bluebeard was genuinely troubled and concerned, hopeful that he could spare Judith from the awful reality within the dank chambers. What was intriguing was the way these two singers comported themselves. Komlósi, confronted with a more single-directed role in this curiosity-killed-the-cat story, differentiated her responses in large measure with body language, gestures, facial expressions. Goerne, on the other hand, did it all with his voice, his body significantly uninvolved.

Lildiko Komlosi, Charles Dutoit, and Matthias Goerne (Robert Torres photo)

Lildiko Komlosi, Charles Dutoit, and Matthias Goerne (Robert Torres photo)

Bluebeard is unusually constructed in another way: it begins with a prologue spoken by a narrator, setting not exactly the scene but the tone, with coy Brechtian rhetorical questions that provoke the audience to see and hear this opera as a parable of interior life. This role was taken by George Meszoly, a Hungarian-born citizen of Boston, graduate of Boston Latin School and Harvard, linguist and retired software engineer. Meszoly read his lines (in Hungarian, not strictly necessary for the prologue but in keeping with the idea that the sound and rhythm of the language were integral to the tone of the work) with high artifice and theatricality, as in a scene from Cabaret. On the whole it was effective.

There was one other character in the opera to speak of, and that was the castle itself, the role assumed by the orchestra. With all hands on deck, it groaned, whispered, blared, sighed (literally—a wind machine on low setting), and most especially, brooded. Dutoit kept a tight leash on, but gave the many colorful passages and solos their due. In fact, the wealth was spread so generously that there were no solo call-outs at the end, but it’s worth mentioning the striking section in the Treasury, with the orchestra lighting up the glinting gold, where concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s oleaginous solo, harmonically aslant the orchestra, established the worm in the apple.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

9 Comments

  1. On the subject of the title of Bartok’s work, the score from Bartok’s publisher Universal Edition (based in Vienna) is titled “Herzog Blaubarts Burg” in German, above the Hungarian title. It’s thus odd to complain that “Herceg” may not always translate into English the same way “Herzog” does, when Bartok clearly authorized both. See the first title page at http://imslp.org/wiki/Bluebeard's_Castle,_Sz.48_(Bartók,_Béla)

    Comment by Stephen Owades — October 28, 2016 at 6:21 pm

  2. Because of a cold and bad weather, as well as not caring to hear the Bartók again, I didn’t take my seat in the hall on Thursday. But reading the program notes on line, I’m disappointed to see that the libretto is not included. A penny-pinching management seems to have decided that the English surtitles during the performance are enough. They are wrong. I don’t know how large the radio and web audience is, but neglecting them is unfortunate. If it’s legitimate for the in-house audience to have access to the translation while the opera is being performed, it is just as important for the listening audience to have it. Furthermore, many patrons and radio/web listeners could find the printed text a useful supplement to Marc Mandel’s OUTSTANDING program note — both for preparation and for reflection after the performance. It was inconsiderate of management to take their ill-conceived decision to omit the libretto.

    I won’t be able to listen to the Bartók on Saturday, but Marc Mandel’s note has almost convinced me to listen to WCRB’s rebroadcast on November 7. The music itself, however is not my proverbial cup of tea, and the program mentions that it has been given in Symphony Hall in 2006 and 2011. I was present for at least one of those performances, and that’s enough. In my opinion, this is not one of the works that needs to be presented every five years. There are plenty of other composition that have been waiting longer and deserve to be heard ahead of this — commissions that have gathered dust since their first performance, works by Ives and other American composers, former standards that have fallen out of favor — think, to give two examples, Schubert and Weber (how I’d love to hear Jason Snider solo in the Weber concertino). These neglected works may not be “better” in the opinion of the decision makers, but that does not mean that they should be endlessly pushed aside in favor of another “Bluebeard” or other second-tier piece.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 29, 2016 at 1:18 am

  3. Friday’s Mozart was beautifully played, rhythmically pointed and well phrased. Mr. Koven’s comment on stick technique is valid, but the orchestra had no problem playing unanimously. The violins were not seated divisi, but all repeats were taken (yay); Mr. Hudgins did not play.

    The Bartok was stunning. I’ve never heard more eloquent and well-matched singers in this piece, live or recorded. My gripe with the text management was that Hungarian was neither displayed in the hall nor printed (the latter can’t be a case of penny pinching.) It’s useful to see the original text in order to enjoy the sounds being sung, even if one is not fluent in the language.

    It was a shame to see such beauty lavished on a two-thirds filled hall. Bartok is still “modern.”

    Comment by Martin Cohn — October 29, 2016 at 10:59 am

  4. I’m fond of the Weber concertino, but it seems to me that the chance to hear Goerne and Komlosi in this so-called “second tier” work (I love it, and this performance was gorgeous) is worth ten Weber concertinos (concertini?). And the reading of the Prologue, so rarely offered whether in concert form or on stage, let alone in impeccable Hungarian, was a finely dramatic *amuse bouche*. As for several performances over the years, as the Prologue says:

    Why repeat it? Well, grief
    Is always new, and so is your applause,
    Ladies and gentlemen.

    (Chester Kallman’s 1952 translation)

    Do not miss the Sunday matinee if you missed this on Thursday evening, and be thankful that there will be two more chances to hear it on WCRB. (But what the hell is a Mozart symphony doing on this program? When the Met did it with Samuel Ramey and Jessye Norman, it was preceded by Schoenberg’s “Erwartung,” a much more apposite choice.)

    Comment by Alan Levitan — October 29, 2016 at 11:09 am

  5. Joe Whipple and Alan Levitan, nobody would complain less than me if the BSO performed more Ives. One good pairing would be Ives 3, which uses small forces like the Mozart (and is fairly easy listening), and it was completed in 1911, same year as Bluebeard!

    Comment by Vance Koven — October 29, 2016 at 4:19 pm

  6. Vance, your comment is as good as your review — both first rate!!

    Comment by Jerry — October 30, 2016 at 8:59 am

  7. I attended Fridays show with much Trepidation about the music. My anxiety was quashed by the unequivocal conducting of Bartok’s masterpiece, Bluebeards Castle by maestro Dutoit with help from the BSO and spell binding singers. The last time I was as transfixed as by Bluebeards Castle was last April when the BSO performed Malher’s 9th symphony with such unforgettable aplomb. I am much the better for having been witness to such stirring, abstract melody which left an indelible mark on my soul. Amazingly to say the least. The Mozart symphony was a delightful appetizer for an enjoyable, heartfelt afternoon.

    Comment by Richard Riley — October 30, 2016 at 6:58 pm

  8. I fear that with Nelsons as music director we’ll never get Ives. Ahime!
    The last Ives works I’ve heard at Symphony Hall by the BSO were Three Places in New England under Metzmacher in 2003 and Symphony No. 4 with Gilbert in 2009. And now who are the visiting conductors who would bring Ives on board? No one I can think of.
    So will we ever hear the beautiful, magnificent 2nd in Symphony Hall?
    Is there anyway we can lobby for it?
    Meanwhile, I found the Bartok Bluebeard a wonderful work and performance. (Much more interesting and engaging than the Dukas version of the story.) However, I always feel that a performance is unbalanced, in a way, when one of the two soloists is singing from memory and the other is using a score, even if the score is only skimmed for reference. (I had a similar feeling years ago when we attended the BSO performance of Das Lied von der Erde and Ben Heppner sang gloriously from memory while Jessye Norman read from the score and mailed it in.)

    Comment by edente — November 1, 2016 at 11:32 pm

  9. Sorry, in my last remark I didn’t mean to give the impression, if I did, that either singer at the Bluebeard performance “mailed it in,” I thought they were both terrific. I only meant that it seemed visually or aesthetically unbalanced, in a way.

    Comment by edente — November 2, 2016 at 12:25 am

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