Concert Review: The Boston Symphony Orchestra Presents a Spooky “Bluebeard’s Castle”

Clearly, like most of the innocent heroines in horror movies, Bluebeard’s wife is unaware of the old adage of curiosity killing the cat.

Soloists Ildiko Komlosi and Matthias Goerne perform Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle" with Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Robert Torres.

Soloists Ildikó Komlósi and Matthias Goerne perform Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” with Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Robert Torres.

By Susan Miron

Conductor Charles Dutoit continued his 80th birthday celebration and long association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday with a late Mozart Symphony and an understated but chilling performance of Béla Bartók’s gripping Bluebeard’s Castle.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat, K. 43, is the least performed of his three renowned final symphonies (including Nos. 40 and 41) all completed in the amazing space of nine weeks in the summer of 1788. The San Francisco Symphony’s notes efficiently elucidate Mozart’s situation:

Twelve movements in nine weeks would mean that, on the average, Mozart expended five days and a few hours on the composition of each movement. That doesn’t figure in the fact that he was also writing other pieces at the same time, or that he was also giving piano lessons, tending a sick wife, entertaining friends, moving to a new apartment, and begging his fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg for assistance that might see him and his family through what was turning into an extended financial crisis.

These three symphonies, as the BSO program notes assert, “have come virtually to define for us that central genre in classical music, demonstrating both perfection of compositional craft and a dumbfounding variety of expression.” No. 39 in E-Flat is the only symphony from Mozart’s late years that does not use oboes, but it brings in clarinets to great effect, especially in the Menuetto’s trio, where a solo clarinet appears in an Austrian folk dance (a Ländler). Dutoit led a crystalline, chamber music-like performance — it would be best described as elegantly Mozartian.

Bartók’s (1881-1945) only opera, the one-act Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (in Hungarian, A kékszakállú herceg vára — literally, The Blue-Bearded Duke’s Castle) was composed in 1911 and received its 1918 premiere in Budapest. The libretto, written in Hungarian by Béla Balázs, a poet and friend of the composer, is based on the French literary tale “La Barbe bleue” by Charles Perrault (1628-1703). Conceived for the theatre, this one-hour cliffhanger (a perfect entertainment for Halloween week) works powerfully in concert as well: there are two singing characters, Bluebeard (Kékszakállú), and his new bride Judit, and an optional narrator who introduces the grim proceedings. Suggesting what macabre things lurk (or go bump) behind the seven doors in the castle is left — especially when the production is sans scenery — up to the orchestra to whip up in our minds.

The charismatic Hungarian-speaking opening narrator was George Meszoly. Bluebeard was portrayed by renowned baritone Matthias Goerne, menacingly dressed in black and barely moving. Although Goerne has performed this role before, he sang from a score, which took nothing away from his scary aura as he sang to his new bride Judit, Ildikó Komlósi. The Hungarian mezzo-soprano sang gloriously, without the music, her voice as well as her body and face providing poignance aplenty. (This is in no way to disparage Goerne. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language; it is treacherously difficult to learn or memorize). A large orchestra was supplemented by two sets of ten speakers, each hanging on a side of the stage. The black boxes emitted moaning sounds — was the castle supposed to be sighing? It was, it turns out, a wind machine on a low setting — very unsettling and effective, the perfect background soundscape for a front porch on last Monday’s holiday of ghosts and goblins.

As Bartók’s drama opens, Judit has just eloped with Bluebeard, in the process ditching her fiancé and abandoning her parents and brothers. After she and Bluebeard enter the dark, dank, windowless hall of his castle, Judit immediately decides she needs to open all seven of the doors in order to let in some much welcome sunshine. She has been forewarned about this man and his mysterious abode, yet she finds herself compelled to beg for all the keys — clearly, like most of the innocent heroines in horror movies, she is unaware of the old adage of curiosity killing the cat.

Bluebeard acquiesces to her first few requests. The supertitles, in bold capitals, tell us what lurks behind each door. The first, a torture chamber, has walls which weep blood. “It does not shine like your father’s castle,” Bluebeard sings understatedly. “The wall is wet” she cries, sensing trouble from which most brides would flee ASAP. “What kind of water drips?” she asks.

The second door opens onto an armory, stocked with blood-stained weapons, the third, contains a great treasure, heaps of blood-soaked jewels. At this point, a concerned Bluebeard issues a warning to watch out for the last doors — but it is a futile cease and desist order. His wife insists to be taken everywhere and to see what is in each room. Behind door four is a perfumed garden, with blood soaked soil (“Who has bled to feed your garden?); behind door 5 there’s a vast countryside panorama, with clouds casting a bloody shadow. ”I left the world of roses and sunshine for this,” she rues, but feels confident — initially — that she can save both her groom and his bedeviled retreat. Foolishly, she insists on full disclosure — can he possibly be as cruel as this house of horrors suggests? Door 6 hosts a lake of tears shed by Bluebeard’s past wives. Now hubby implores his bride not to open door 7 — just take him on trust and love him. Behind this door are his other three wives, undead. Bluebeard praises them as they strut out — his wives of dawn, midday, and dusk. Bluebeard regretfully informs Judit that she is now his wife of the night; she is forced to follow her accursed predecessors, leaving husband behind in total darkness.

Wonderfully descriptive orchestral music accompanies the opening of each door. Shrieks from the piccolos, acerbic recurring minor seconds, represent blood. Trumpets and horn fanfares sound when the armory is revealed, and celesta and harps make the sound of glistening of the jewels and shimmering waters behind door 6. The music uncannily suggests the progression of the drama, first from darkness to light, then a retreat to tragic darkness. For many listeners, the highlight of the drama is undoubtedly the fifth door, when the organ (here the estimable James David Christie) belts out a C major chord several times (loud enough to wake the dead) and Judit miraculously (for a mezzo-soprano) goes for and hits a high C.

The surtitles were extremely helpful (my section contained a smattering of Hungarian speakers), but including a libretto in the program book would have been best. I would have loved to see this opera fully staged, but, in truth, there is not much stage action to speak of. Marc Mandel (BSO program annotator) rightly argues that “Bartók’s music is so strikingly apt from standpoints of drama, psychology, and aural imagery that it more than makes up for the absence of staging and lighting.”

The Boston Symphony has, for decades, successfully presented unstaged and semi-staged concert operas; Dutoit’s Bluebeard was a delight. Bravos to all involved. Bluebeard’s trick was our treat.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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