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.