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Sunlit Haydn, Moonlit Bartók

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Alisa Weilerstein and Karina Canellakis (Hilary Scott photo)

This week’s BSO program offers Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C and Béla Bartók’s opera A kékszakállú herceg vára (“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”), and if you’re thinking it must be the Haydn that first entered the repertoire, you’d be wrong. The concerto was an early work, composed between 1761 and 1765, but it was thought lost until its rediscovery in 1961, by which time Bluebeard’s Castle had been presented by New York City Opera and received half a dozen recordings. The two works might seem worlds apart, but they have C major in common, and Thursday with guest conductor Karina Canellakis and soloists Alisa Weilerstein, Karen Cargill, and Nathan Berg, they made a rewarding pair, the concerto’s Enlightenment sunshine offsetting the opera’s Symbolist gloom.

Composed for Haydn’s friend Joseph Franz Weigl, principal (and possibly sole) cellist in Nikolaus I’s Eszterházy Orchestra, the Cello Concerto in C was written for two oboes, two horns, and strings — not many of those, either, since the 1760s version of the Eszterházy hardly exceeded 15 musicians. The BSO first performed the piece at Tanglewood in 1965, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and Jules Eskin as soloist; it debuted at Symphony Hall later that year with Leinsdorf and Mstislav Rostropovich and has received more than 60 BSO performances since.

All three movements are in nascent sonata form: a 4/4 Moderato in C with cadenza, a 2/4 Adagio in F with cadenza, and a 4/4 Allegro molto in C. The Moderato might suggest an arrival in the country on a bright summer day, with a pleasant breeze and, in the development, a few pesky gnats buzzing about. The Adagio is a rolling stream shadowed in the minor-key middle section by the occasional dark cloud; the Allegro molto proposes a spirited game of blind man’s buff.

Weilerstein made her BSO debut in 2009, playing the Brahms Violin and Cello Concerto with Janine Jansen; in 2011, she played the Haydn Concerto with Christoph Eschenbach at Tanglewood, and that same year she was named a MacArthur Fellow. She’s been a BSO regular, though this is her first visit since 2017. Her 2018 recording of the Haydn with the Trondheim Soloists is more brisk spring than lazy summer, the Moderato verging on Allegro, the Adagio practically an Andante, the Allegro molto very molto, the whole earthy and bittersweet. Not as Romantic an interpretation as you might hear from, say, Steven Isserlis, but just as legitimate, delivered with intelligence and imagination.

Thursday Weilerstein seemed a fraction more relaxed while maintaining the same firm rhythmic contour. Canellakis, a 2014 Tanglewood Fellow and now also a regular BSO guest, led an orchestra of about 30 strings, more than Haydn envisioned but not a problem for any soloist, since the concerto is mostly alternates solo and ritornello sections. She conducted without a baton, a lithe, lilting presence on the podium, her large arcing gestures conveying Haydn’s generosity of spirit. I saw the score on her music stand but I didn’t see her turn a page or even glance at it.

Weilerstein has described the sound of her 1730 Montagnana as “focused and penetrating,” and in her hands it certainly is, so the number of strings would in any case be irrelevant. Her Moderato was crisp and exuberant, and robust in the lower-register chords, as if peasants had joined the gentry at the party. The gnats in the middle section were more menacing than pesky, and they returned in the cadenza, but they didn’t disrupt the movement’s ebb and flow. The Adagio showed Weilerstein the master of uptempo romance, and then sorrow in the middle section; she allowed herself some nightingale license in the cadenza. The Allegro molto was, as on her recording, very fast, nimble and light but not lightweight, Weilerstein skipping between high and low registers as if she were carrying on both halves of a conversation, the grandparents telling the kids to settle down and the kids not listening. A very animated Canellakis was clearly on the kids’ side.

The one encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s Fourth Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, was breathtakingly slow and songful, angular in its dotted rhythms, full of edge and depth, with phrasing that never lost its shape. When I arrived home from the concert, I located a YouTube video of Weilerstein playing the piece and listened to it a few more times. Hard to get enough.      

Karen Cargill (Hilary Scott photo)

Bluebeard’s Castle did not have the most auspicious beginnings. In 1911, Bartók adapted a new play by his friend Béla Balázs as the text for what would be his first stage work and his first vocal work. The opera was finished in September and promptly entered in two competitions, neither of which it won. (No prizes were in fact awarded in either case.) Balázs and Bartók rented a small Budapest theater to give the play its stage premiere in 1913, with Balázs directing and Bartók playing some of his piano works at intermission; the result was an artistic and critical flop, and A kékszakállú herceg vára was never again offered as a theater piece. The opera version didn’t reach a Budapest stage till 1918, after Bartók’s pantomime ballet A fából faragott királyfi (“The Wooden Prince”) had been presented.

Bluebeard’s Castle got its American concert debut in a 1949 radio broadcast from Antal Dorati and the Dallas Symphony; New York City Opera followed with a staged production three years later. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the first American recording in 1960, but Bluebeard’s Castle didn’t arrive at the Metropolitan Opera till 1974. In all these instances, it was sung in English translation. By the time Seiji Ozawa led the BSO concert premiere in 1980, however, a number of high-profile recordings in the original Hungarian had appeared, and Boston had been treated to Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston presentations in 1967 and 1969. That was, as far as I know, the last time Bluebeard’s Castle has been staged here in Hungarian. But the BSO concert performances under Ozawa, James Levine (2006–7 and 2011), and Charles Dutoit (2016) have all been sung in Hungarian, and that’s the case again this weekend.

Which is good news. Balázs wrote his play in a trochaic tetrameter that fits the stress pattern and speech rhythms of Hungarian; he created it, he said, “in the language and rhythms of old Hungarian Székely folk ballads” and constructed it “from dark, weighty, uncarved blocks of words.” English doesn’t have the same weight or bite, and English translations designed for singing, like the one Boston Lyric Opera used in last year’s production, have to compromise to fit the meter. Judith’s first line in the Hungarian is “Megyek, megyek, Kékszakállú” (“I’m following, I’m following, Bluebeard”). “Kékszakállú” is four syllables, “Bluebeard” just two, so the BLO translation — made by the composer’s younger son, Péter — gave us “I am with you, dearest Bluebeard,” inserting an endearment that’s not in the original.              

Of the 50 or so recordings of Bluebeard’s Castle, the great majority are in Hungarian; if the singers weren’t native Hungarians, they at least could work from the score. But an unfamiliar language isn’t the only reason Bartók’s opera isn’t staged as often as it might be. The piece runs about an hour — just right for LP, if the conductor wasn’t too pokey, and ideal for CD, but short measure for an evening out. It’s also austere, with a single set, the castle, and just two singing characters, Bluebeard and Judith, plus Bluebeard’s three previous wives, who are silent. When the play was first published, in 1910, Balázs included the castle in the dramatis personae, listing it right after Judith and Bluebeard. Bartók did not follow suit in the score of the opera, but his orchestra functions as the castle, often saying what Bluebeard does not, or cannot.

The play begins with a riddling prologue spoken by a regős, or bard, in which we’re asked whether the ancient tale we’re about to witness is outside or inside, on the stage or in our heads. Balázs’s Judith (name recalling the Biblical heroine who slew the Assyrian invader Holofernes) is not the “guilty” wife of Charles Perrault’s 1697 tale who unlocks the door to Bluebeard’s forbidden room and discovers the bodies of his previous wives. This Judith has defied her family and left her fiancé to marry Bluebeard (where and when the ceremony took place is not specified) and live in his dank, gloomy castle with its seven locked doors. Determined to bring light into the castle, and perhaps enlighten herself as to Bluebeard’s true character, she persuades her reluctant husband to open, one by one, all seven doors. The first six reveal his torture chamber, his arsenal, his treasure room, his secret garden, his vast realm, and a motionless white lake. We seem to be passing from darkness into light, but there’s blood everywhere, even on the roses in the garden, and the lake is formed from tears. An increasingly distraught Judith deduces that corpses are behind the seventh door, but she’s wrong: Bluebeard’s three previous wives are alive, no longer outside but inside. Defeated, she walks into the seventh room, the door closes behind her, and she joins the other three in living death. Bluebeard himself is swallowed up by eternal night.

Balázs summed all this up in a poem he wrote, one that in 1908 Bartók appended to the manuscript score of the violin concerto he had composed for Stefi Geyer; it includes the thought “No two stars are as far apart as two human souls.” Balázs further explained, “The castle is his soul. Into this castle, Bluebeard admits his beloved. And the castle shudders, weeps, and bleeds. When the woman walks in it, she walks in a living being.” And finally, “The man’s dream kills her.” Péter Bartók has suggested, “In a sense, we are all Bluebeards, in another sense we fill the role of a Judith.”

It’s not hard to see how the play caught Bartók’s attention; even after his marriage to Márta Ziegler in 1909, he could write to Frederick Delius a year later, “I am so alone here, have no one to talk to.” That was true, up to a point, of his relationship with Balász, since he began working on the opera without informing the playwright. All the same, he made only minor changes to the text, mostly pruning, and he took note of Balázs’s numerous stage directions, even if he didn’t always follow them to the letter.

The one actual stage requirement is some sort of castle and the seven doors. We’re not meant to see what’s behind the doors; we only hear Judith tell us what she sees. Streams of light appear when she opens the first four: blood-red from the first, yellow-red from the second, golden from the third, blue-green from the fourth. Door five brings an explosion of light, door six a darkening shadow, door seven silver moonlight. When Judith opens door seven, doors five and six close on their own; when the third wife goes back inside, door four closes, and after Bluebeard has retrieved crown, mantle, and jewels from his treasure room, door three closes too. None of this registers in concert. Then again, one recent stage production reimagined Bluebeard and Judith as a happily married couple facing the devastating reality of her dementia, and another made Judith an undercover police detective who kills Bluebeard and frees the three previous wives. At Symphony Hall, you at least get to use your imagination.

The music enters about a minute in, after the fourth of the bard’s six stanzas: a pentatonic melody, pp and centering on F-sharp, starts up in the lower strings, moving slowly in dotted minims. After 16 measures, oboes and clarinets introduce a tentative, uneasy idea in C, and those two keys, as far apart as Balázs’s two stars, are the opera’s focal points, dark and light, closed and open, Bluebeard and Judith. Once the castle door has shut behind Judith, the lower strings begin an incessant six-note ostinato, all in sharps, that circles in on itself and undercuts her aim of letting in light. When she discovers that the castle walls are wet, Bartók introduces the “blood” motif, a minor second — two notes as close together as possible — that honks like a car alarm; it goes off whenever blood is mentioned but not only then. The castle itself sighs from time to time (Bartók leaves the execution to the conductor’s imagination), and it also erupts in full-orchestra distress when Judith seems to be getting too close.

Nathan Berg (Hilary Scott photo)

When Ozawa and the BSO did Bluebeard’s Castle in 1980 (a fine performance that’s included in the BSO’s Centennial Celebration box set), there was no bard, the program book explaining that the prologue is “usually omitted in concert performance.” I’m sure that used to be the case. The prologue was generally omitted on LPs as well, in some cases because the extra minute or two couldn’t be crammed onto a single vinyl disc. On CD, there’s ample room, and even then, recent releases don’t always offer it. That’s disrespectful to Balázs, but also to Bartók, who could have excluded it but didn’t. As for concert performances, if you think Bluebeard’s Castle is all about the music, then a spoken prologue is expendable. But if there was ever an opera where the words are the equal of the music, this is it.

The BSO performances led by Levine and Dutoit all began with the prologue; at Tanglewood in 2007, Örs Kisfaludy struck just the right unsettling tone as he weaved through the audience. This time out, distinguished local actor Jeremiah Kissel weaved through the orchestra, or at least the part of it nearest the stage door. Unlike Kisfaludy, however, or George Meszoly in 2016, he spoke the prologue in English. There’s precedent — Willard White on Valery Gergiev’s 2009 London Symphony Orchestra recording — and Kissel was anything but rote. But his conversational tone didn’t convey much bardic authority, and, inevitably, not every word was discernible from the back of the hall. The original Hungarian would have given his delivery more heft, and we wouldn’t have needed to understand the words because supertitles would have provided the English translation. 

The translation for the opera proper was, as in 2016, done by Sonya Haddad, who was the libretto translator and supertitler for the Met. There was the odd puzzle. “Vőlegény,” translated (correctly, I think) as “fiancé” the first time it appeared, seemed to become “father” the second, in connection with the castle where Judith might have been happier. And “a te várad,” which Judith speaks three times when she realizes what/who is sighing, was “your castle” the first two but “your poor castle” the third. Overall, though, this version balanced literal with idiomatic and was a huge improvement on the singing translations found in most recordings that include the text. A supertitle announced the opening of each door, and at that point the rear of the stage and the organ were bathed in the appropriate color of light, red to start, sliding toward gold for the third door but changing back to red whenever blood was mentioned. The blue-green for Bluebeard’s garden didn’t seem to register; for his vast realm, on the other hand, the stage exploded in brightness and the house lights came up. I don’t know whether this sort of thing has been done before, at the BSO or elsewhere, but it’s a thoughtful nod toward staging.           

Canadian bass-baritone Nathan Berg was a last-minute replacement for Johannes Martin Kränzle, who had to withdraw because of illness. He and Scottish mezzo-soprano Cargill stood on either side of Canellakis, the usual arrangement, and it makes sense in that Bluebeard and Judith often talk at cross-purposes. When she interprets the red light streaming from the torture chamber as a sign that dawn is breaking into the castle, he reminds her that it’s a river of blood; she ignores him. Later, when she notices the blood on his treasures and his flowers, his response is to hustle her on to the next door, as if nothing were amiss. What’s lost, however, is the physical interaction the score’s stage directions call for. As soon as they enter the castle, Judith snuggles up to Bluebeard and he embraces her, and then he takes her hand as they feel their way along the wall. She kisses his hand, leans on his shoulder; they indulge in a long kiss. All this was absent from the stage Thursday, and also from the supertitles. I wonder whether a concert Bluebeard and Judith have ever been stationed side by side.

Regardless of where the singers stand, there’s the orchestra to deal with. On disc, the balance can be adjusted to let them emote naturally; the 1953 Bartók Records recording supervised by Péter Bartók and conducted by Walter Süsskind is ideal in that respect. In the theater, the orchestra would be in the pit and not on stage, or it might be reduced and deployed at the rear of the playing space, as it was in last year’s BLO production. In concert, both singers have to compete with Bartók’s huge ensemble.

Bluebeard is the easier role: the part lies lower, and until the fifth door opens he’s able to sing quietly. Berg was somewhat recessed to start, a reasonable choice for a character who’s trying to keep his new wife at a distance. He had a sense of Bartók’s parlando rubato, he expanded in his proud portrayal of his vast domain, and he was prouder still of his three previous wives, caressing the final “Övé most már minden este” (“Hers is now every evening”). He looked discreetly at his score while maintaining eye contact with the audience. It was as good a Bluebeard as you could ask at such short notice.

Judith is more difficult, since her emotional highs are also the orchestra’s. Cargill was full and rich at the top, almost never shrieky, but like Michelle DeYoung at Tanglewood in 2007, she had to fight to keep from getting swamped, and the color and character of her voice didn’t always emerge. Inevitably, her Judith was long on demanding and accusing and short on radiance and seduction, and she was stretched to make “Mert szeretlek” (“Because I love you”) sound convincing. She did look at Berg from time to time, she nailed her high C at the opening of the fifth door, and she was touching when Judith tells Bluebeard “Hallgass, hallgass, itt vagyok még” (“Look! Look! I’m still here”) even as he’s assimilating her.

Could Canellakis have made more room for her singers? The pacing of Thursday’s performance felt cramped, and yet it ran 63 minutes, up there with Levine and Ádám Fischer and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the long end of the spectrum — and to my mind that’s just right, so I can’t complain. Canellakis’s control was such that she might have pushed the timing even farther. As for throttling back the orchestra, perhaps that would just gray out the music without really helping the singers. She led a dramatic, kaleidoscopic reading that explored every nuance of Bluebeard’s castle/soul. Vivid instrumental color greeted each opened door: hysterical piccolo and xylophone for the torture chamber; martial trumpet for the armory; harp and celesta for the treasure room; soft horn and flute for the garden; cataclysmic full orchestra and organ [Dexter Kennedy at the Hutchings—Æolian Skinner—Foley-Baler] for Bluebeard’s domain; rippling harp, celesta, clarinet, and fluttertongueing flutes for the lake of tears. Throughout, Bartók asks for commentary from the solo winds, particularly clarinet and English horn, and the orchestra’s first desks had a field day. It all made me wish for a contemporary BSO recording to set alongside the one the late Ozawa led.

So, is Bluebeard’s Castle really an opera, or just a symphony with voices, like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde? Zoltán Kodály weighed in on that question: “What matters is that it is impossible to separate the music and the drama, and that here we have a masterpiece: a musical volcano that erupts for 60 minutes of compressed tragedy and leaves us with only one desire: the desire to hear it again.” Yes.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 45 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for providing me, anyway, with some information about the plot that I missed,, and I was there, in the first section of the first balcony. I could read the notes on the music stand.! I was unaware that the 3 previous wives were alive. About a third of the way through, I was no longer interested in the words. I know there is all kinds of symbolism but at my age, I don’t care about that. Listening to the wall of sound was breathtaking. I agree with you that the green was not the best. I cannot remember if Karina turned a page of the Haydn score; I was struck by how shiny her shoes were. My drill sergeant would have approved. And I saw a violinist drop his bow. That was embarrassing but endearing. All in all a terrific performance and there were empty seats in front of me so I could put my coat on one. I hope the rest of the performances are much better attended.

    Comment by Rich Carle — February 10, 2024 at 1:08 pm

  2. I really liked the lighting, especially turning all the lights up full for the fifth door. I don’t recall anything of the sort with Levine.
    And for me, Mr. Kissel was a vast improvement over the screaming Hungarian narration with Levine.
    But in my youth I heard a performance conducted by Dorati, I believe in Detroit, that had someone akin to Rod Serling minus the cigarette. Sotto voce throughout. He scared the absolute daylights out of you before a note was sounded.

    Comment by Brian Bell — February 10, 2024 at 5:11 pm

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