Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2018 opens with Annilese Miskimmon's Madama Butterfly

As the bells rang with romance from the tower of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the rolling downs of Sussex - which had just acquired a new Duke - echoed with the strains of a rather more bitter-sweet cross-cultural love affair. Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2018 season opened with Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Madama Butterfly, first seen during the 2016 Glyndebourne tour and now making its first visit to the main house.

Remembering Debussy

This concert might have been re-titled Remembrance of Musical Times Past: the time, that is, when French song, nurtured in the Proustian Parisian salons, began to gain a foothold in public concert halls. But, the madeleine didn’t quite work its magic on this occasion.

A chiaroscuro Orfeo from Iestyn Davies and La Nuova Musica

‘I sought to restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations, without interrupting the action or hampering it with unnecessary and superfluous ornamentations. […] I believed further that I should devote my greatest effort to seeking to achieve a noble simplicity; and I have avoided parading difficulties at the expense of clarity.’

Lessons in Love and Violence: powerful musical utterances but perplexing dramatic motivations

‘What a thrill -/ My thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone/ Except for a sort of hinge/ Of skin,/ A flap like a hat,/ Dead white. Then that red plush.’ Those who imagined that Sylvia Plath (‘Cut’, 1962) had achieved unassailable aesthetic peaks in fusing pain - mental and physical - with beauty, might think again after seeing and hearing this, the third, collaboration between composer George Benjamin and dramatist/librettist Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence.

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

Always in demand on French and international stages, the French soprano Sabine Devieihle is, fortunately, becoming an increasingly frequent visitor to these shores. Her first appearance at Wigmore Hall was last month’s performance of works by Handel with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée. This lunchtime recital, reflecting the meetings of music and minds which took place at Parisian salon of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), was her solo debut at the venue.

Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago is now featuring as its spring musical Jesus Christ Superstar with music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The production originated with the Regent’s Park Theatre, London with additional scenery by Bay Productions, U.K. and Commercial Silk International.

Persephone glows with life in Seattle

As a figure in the history of 20th century art, few deserve to be closer to center stage than Ida Rubenbstein. Without her talent, determination, and vast wealth, Ravel’s Boléro, Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Stravinsky’s Perséphone would not exist.

La concordia de’ pianeti: Imperial flattery set to Baroque splendor in Amsterdam

One trusts the banquet following the world premiere of La concordia de’ pianeti proffered some spicy flavors, because Pietro Pariati’s text is so cloying it causes violent stomach-churning. In contrast, Antonio Caldara’s music sparkles and dances like a blaze of crystal chandeliers.

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2018

The 63rd Competition for the Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2018 was an unusually ‘home-grown’ affair. Last year’s Final had brought together singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond, but the six young singers assembled at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening all originated from the UK.

Affecting and Effective Traviata in San Jose

Opera San Jose capped its consistently enjoyable, artistically accomplished 2017-2018 season with a dramatically thoughtful, musically sound rendition of Verdi’s immortal La traviata.

Brahms Liederabend

At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?) Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?

Angel Blue in La Traviata

One of the most beloved operas of all time, Verdi’s “ La Traviata” has never lost its enduring appeal as a tragic tale of love and loss, as potent today as it was during its Venice premiere in 1853.

Matthias Goerne and Seong-Jin Cho at Wigmore Hall

Is it possible, I wonder, to have too much of a ‘good thing’? Baritone Matthias Goerne can spin an extended vocal line and float a lyrical pianissimo with an unrivalled beauty that astonishes no matter how many times one hears and admires the evenness of line, the controlled legato, the tenderness of tone.

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

Madness - or perhaps, more widely, insanity - in opera goes back centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) it’s the dimension of a character’s jealousy and betrayal that drives him to the state of delusion and madness. Mozart, in Idomeneo, treats Electra’s descent into mania in a more hostile and despairing way. Foucault would probably define these episodic operatic breakdowns as “melancholic”, ones in which the characters are powerless rather than driven by acts of personal violence or suicide.

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Bela Bartok in bronze sculpture by Hungarian Andras Beck
05 Jun 2012

Bluebeard’s Castle, New World Symphony

“I can guess what you are hiding.
Bloodstain on your warrior’s weapons.
Blood upon your crown of glory.
Red the soil around your flowers.
Red the shade your cloud was throwing.
Now I know it all, oh, Bluebeard.”

Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle; Quartet No. 6 for Strings, BB 119 (1939)

Judith: Michelle DeYoung; Duke Bluebeard: Eric Halfvarson. New World Symphony. Nick Hillel, director. Jeannette Jang and Vivek Jayaraman, violin; Anthony Parce, viola; David Meyer, cello. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor.

Above: Bela Bartok in bronze sculpture by Hungarian Andras Beck

 

Judith’s soliloquy builds up to be both a précis of Bela Bartok’s opera and the anticipating tableaux announcing entrance to the seventh and final door to Bluebeard’s Castle. What awaits on the other side?

Librettist Bela Balazs described the words he wrote over Bartok’s music as “the ballad of inner life” and the castle as Bluebeard’s soul. Neither Bartok nor Balazs fail to intrigue — on the other side of that final door, a secret, a mystery. The opera leaves the audience wondering what just happened.

Such is life.

Balazs’ look at the Bluebeard legend is open to greater analysis than the essay of its origins, from a series of fairy tales written by Charles Perrault. Perrault’s creation has facial hair that literally comes out blue. The staying power of children’s stories seems to be bound to this very interpretive unobtrusiveness, for kids to dance in and for adults to play with cloaked meanings.

Today’s reader might be startled by the period-typical gore and terror of Perrault’s Bluebeard, the type whose pages could be torn from a Stephen King novel. Perrault’s story of an old curmudgeon Duke drips blood — corpses hang from hooks, decapitation is considered, murder lurks behind every castle door. This can read as quite monstrous, writing geared for little eyes and ears as it is. Balazs’ version leaves more to the imagination — definitely more Hitchcockian.

Bartok’s Bluebeard tills fertile creative ground for all involved in its production. At its “new laboratory” in Miami Beach, New World Symphony’s performance (on April 27th) took firm root in the theme of gender roles and how men and women come at love. The producers also played with the seedlings of mystery that permeate the work.

American bass Eric Halfvarson took Balazs’ “joyless” Bluebeard to a place male personified, instrumental in communication style, proud (Perrault describes him as with “a heart harder than any stone”) in temperament, with time on his side. Halfvarson reached all of these angles — in the way he turned away from Judith with up-turned nose (credit also to director Nick Hillel), in calling on the force of his voice to surge with the orchestra at the precipice to door five, and in the directness of the bass’ delivery, communicating in crumbs as Bluebeard does.

Halfvarson’s Bluebeard flexes his kingdom and might; he broods, avoiding memories that wound his spirit and using stonewalling artfully — the bass’ pleas for Judith to “stop asking questions” were teasingly unconvincing. Halfvarson turned lines like ”stop asking questions” and “stones of sorrow thrill with rapture” into gender-line crossing come-hither taunts. The bass made other moments with Judith intimate. Halfvarson highlighted Bluebeard’s own questioning and searching.

Michigander Mezzo Michelle DeYoung, of the potent middle register required for this music — a quality that has won DeYoung some of the heaviest assignments in classical vocal music — lent more than a hint of despair to a Judith that Balazs wrote to be hopeful and inquisitive, the “tend and befriend” careful nurturer. DeYoung capably expressed Judith’s determination to bring warmth and light to Bluebeard’s world, left out as she feels from it.

DeYoung projected an air of wonderment, a tense-filled moment, in telling of the vastness of Bluebeard’s kingdom. Judith wants Bluebeard’s castle rooms “unfastened” and flown open. Bluebeard’s castle trembles at the prospect. Judith reassures with “I’ll never leave you,” read tenderly by DeYoung.

At the threshold to that final door, Judith intuits that the light (from which she must shield her eyes at one point), the color, the signs of richness in Bluebeard’s castle point to a woman, or women: “tell me whom you loved before me.” DeYoung worked a fine characterization as Judith, a soul also searching.

Both Halfvarson and DeYoung communicated their respective characters’ search for meaning. Bluebeard does this through acquisitions, fortifying his castle. Judith does this by looking into Bluebeard, the rooms in his castle. “Give me another key,” Judith begs. Balazs seems to take the audience to the possible conclusion that meaning in life is found by living it. Expect no answers. Balazs takes the audience through the natural course of a human problem: searching in mystery.

This production, in its U.S. premiere, played very close to that heart, utilizing the New World Symphony’s new space and its multiple-angled walls to project (slides from Rite Digital in association with Yeast Culture) a mix of images calling on elements of the castle: water droplets, gears, spikes and sprockets, pin-needles poking through cloth, assembly-line munitions, shadows of Bluebeard’s wives dancing and posing, and lathery crimson in droves — drips and splashes.

Video dragomen Hillel, Nick Corrigan (co-director and VJ) and Richard Slaney (producer) kept things mysterious down to other details — DeYoung and Halfvarson, on the upper deck over the orchestra stage and just under the main wall slides, wore concert black — her in gown, him in evil-genius outfit and cape. The role of narrator, a mysterious sort in its own right that opens the opera and then vanishes, was read — in sight but from the wings — with leathery and seasoned voice by actor/photographer George Schiavone. Schiavone was also in informal black.

These types of subtleties worked into Balazs’ text and with Bartok’s music. Micheal Tilson Thomas’ movements were more measured at the stick, even for the huge and spacious sound — making it feel like the room was getting smaller — created by the orchestra at full throttle at castle door five. MTT trembled along with the castle.

The playing of NWS was of its usual fire and some flair; if not as successful with the mystery of Bartok’s writing (through the second door, in music reminiscent of Turandot’s riddle scene, the overall musical space tended towards stiff) instrumentalists kept the musical line tight enough to carry interest through musical transitions and to assert the Hungarian composer’s genius. The playing also failed to capture the folksiness, the Hungarian gypsy colors of this work. Instrumentalists did better with the bi-tonal and technical aspects in Bluebeard, as well as in supporting the distinctiveness of the “blood motive.”

A lot of 20th century music gets flack for excesses blamed on composers jumping on the bandwagon of atonality. Bartok’s only opera does less to connect him to this movement than do many of his other works. His Quartet No. 6 for Strings firmly places Bartok in this period while also putting him in a class apart altogether. The dissonance is there; the irregular beats, entrances, and changes are there; in this music, there is at center a strong sense of the elegiac, the pastoral, as well.

In a nice marrying of works, the quartet preceded the opera in concert. The work of the young players was on the mark if missing elegance at times. Violinist Jeanette Jang summoned power when necessary and held a disciplined and steady finishing note to the first movement. The stridency of movement two, requiring sharp cuts at bows but easier in terms of unison playing, was a good showing. The third movement, with its faint and curious echoing of the Psycho theme and Rhapsody in Blue, held up well. For the final movement, the NWS quartet (Vivek Jayaraman at violin, Anthony Parce at viola, and David Meyer at cello) assembled here handled the volume shifts — in a section that holds no little mystery to it.

What of the mystery of Duke Bluebeard and the “whispered rumors” that ruminate throughout his castle? What is behind that door? Who are the narrator, the Duke, Judith, and orchestra and MTT? What is the music? What just happened? What is the meaning of all this?

Such is life.

Robert Carreras

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):