Monday, June 25, 2012

Covered in Blood at the San Francisco Symphony

Last week was devoted to Hungarians at the San Francisco Symphony with Liszt's First Piano Concerto and Bartok's one-act "semi-staged" 1911 opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, being performed.

The Symphony opened its current 100th season with Lang Lang performing the Liszt First Piano Concerto, so it seemed a little strange to be featuring it again so soon. However, pianist Jeremy Denk was an interesting alternative to Lang Lang's brasher style, and the often garish, bombastic concerto sounded delicate and beautiful in his hands. The performance was a nice surprise.

Never having heard Bartok's early opera before, partly because of an aversion to stories about men murdering women, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The hour-long score for a large orchestra and two singers turned out to be extraordinary music, brilliantly played by the orchestra under Tilson Thomas (second from left above), and superbly sung by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (above center) as Bluebeard's inquisitive fourth wife Judith, and bass-baritone Alan Held (second from right above) as her possible serial killer new husband, Bluebeard.

According to Janos Gereben, the Hungarian libretto is brilliant while the English translation that was being projected was dreck, and I'll take his word for it, but allegorical or not, the story is a very creepy tale involving torture chambers, a dark, depressing castle with wet walls, lakes of tears from unhappy women, and so on. The semi-staging meant lots of mimed props and continuous projections on the turreted set, that could have been worse, but which featured a few unintentionally hilarious moments, such as the water-spackled castle walls starting to pulse as if we were in a Gatorade commercial.

It was a pleasure hearing such a rarity, though, especially since the performance made such a good case for the musical score. When the huge Davies Hall organ started booming along with the brass during the Fifth Door section where Judith sees the vastness of Bluebeard's (bloodstained) kingdom, it was utterly thrilling. And no, the previous wives turn out not to be dead, but are instead locked behind Door Number Seven and are zombies or memories or something symbolic. He still looked like a Violence Against Women Serial Killer to literal-minded me.


momo said...

In college, in the 70s, an English teacher had us listen to this opera in a class. One had to go to the music library, put on the records and listen with great big headphones. I found it entrancing, and can still remember the woman singing something that sounded like "keeksakalu"(however you write that in Hungarian) in that descending minor chord. Now, thanks to the magic that is YouTube, I can listen to it again. There is a Solti production with Silvia Sass that is quite wonderful.

Civic Center said...

Dear Momo: That's a great story. I think I did the same thing with "Bluebeard's Castle" in the 1970s, including going to a library and getting the monster headphones, but I wasn't quite ready for the piece because it sounded too dissonant and the voices were too screechy. Forty years down the road, it sounds almost conservative and pretty.

Jessye Norman was a big proponent of the opera when she returned to the United States in the 1980s so I'm going to see if she ever did a recording. Jessye at her peak and in certain roles was pretty much god.

momo said...

I had no point of reference for it, either musically or linguistically, but the class was all about uncanny others (Frankenstein, the golem, Tales of Hoffman, dolls and the line between the human and the unhuman--the creator and the creations come to uncanny life--gave me a strange set of reference points. I wish I could remember the name of the professor!

Civic Center said...

Dear momo: Uncanny Others? I take it this was before the "Chuckie" movies came on the scene. Did he/she have you watch the British horror anthology film "Dead of Night" with Michael Redgrave as the mad ventriloquist? It's the best.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I never blogged Bluebeard, but must mention that I was so thrilled with Thursday that I got a ticket for Friday too. It's been a favorite work of mine for a very long time. There's just nothing like the sound the orchestra makes at the opening of the Fifth Door, jeez.

Mike, don't know how far you followed up on this, but I believe Jessye is on Boulez II, though I don't remember who the bass is. Boulez I is Troyanos/Nimsgern, and they're really good (Boulez, of course, is fantastic in this music).

Uh, I have at least six recordings and opinions about them all. Janos will confirm that the earliest available commercial release, Ferencsik/Szekely, Palankay, is indispensable, despite the mono sound and Palankay's lack of a high C. This is one opera where having native speakers makes a difference audible even to non-Magyar speakers like me.

Anyway. It's a great opera. I've seen it four times but the previous three productions didn't have orchestras of the quality of SFS. SUCH A GREAT OPERA.