San Francisco Symphony perform Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

Duke Bluebeard's Castle

The beauty of music, the darkness of the soul 

At the risk of being banal: There is really nothing quite like live musical performance. That was made resoundingly clear this past weekend by San Francisco Symphony’s brilliant performance of Belá Bartók’s one-act opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.”

The opera was written when Bartok was only 30 years old. The libretto, written by the Hungarian poet Belá Belazs, is based on the Perrault fairy tale. In the 17th-century version, a woman marries a man named Bluebeard who allows her into all the rooms of his castle, except for one. Eventually, the woman’s curiosity prevails and she enters the forbidden room only to find the slain and bloody remains of his former wives. When Bluebeard discovers her transgression he threatens to kill her as well. It is only the intervention of her brothers that saves her.

Belazs’ interpretation is psychological and modernist. Judith, as the new wife is called, begs Bluebeard to give her his keys and to open all the rooms with her in order to let light and breeze into his darkened castle, where the stone walls weep with water. He reluctantly gives her the keys to the first three rooms, and together they enter a torture chamber, followed by an armory and a treasury. From then on a struggle begins between the two: the rooms become more symbolic and more clearly aspects of Bluebeard’s psyche—positive and chillingly negative. Judith finds blood everywhere, even in the unfolding flowers of the garden.

The last room is inhabited with Bluebeard’s past wives. Judith finds them “alive” but how alive? Alive in his imagination or memory? Each transformed into an aspect of time: dawn, noon, and afternoon. Judith herself becomes the most beautiful: night.

It is said that Bartók let the rhythms of Hungarian language lead the rhythms of the music through what is called “parlando rubato,” which he found typical of traditional Hungarian folk music. And the seconds that characterize much of the opera’s harmony can still be heard in contemporary folk music of the area. Language, however, really doesn’t explain the intense dynamics achieved by the large orchestration or the individual instrumental groupings throughout, or the awesome crash of the organ when Bluebeard views the extent and power of his domain. The orchestra, under Michael Tilson Thomas’ direction, was at its most splendid. They do this era of musical innovation right proud.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung sang wonderfully well: powerful and pure, her voice borders on the lyric soprano. Alan Held sang the bass part a shade on the stolid side.

The production was semi-staged, with large gray tower-like screens to the sides and back of the orchestra over which abstract images were projected, with lots of red posing as blood. The garden scene was especially enticing, with its time-lapsed photography of flowers opening. The imagery, which moved and was diffuse in its projection, was held together by a sculpture suspended over the orchestra, on which a central, defining image was projected. At times the orchestra was bathed in red, other times the area above the lighting grid, where the pipes of the orchestra soar, were suffused with blue light.

The production was designed by the English designers Nick Hillel and Nick Corrigan. José Maria Condemi directed the staging. It was all simply stunning.

The program opened with Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major. Jeremy Denk was the pianist, and as the composer sitting next to me remarked: “He’s a monster pianist.”

—Jaime Robles

Photo: Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and bass-baritone Alan Held in Bela Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. Photo by Kristen Loken.