Monday, November 7, 2016

A Chilling Bluebeard's Castle from the PSO

The Portland Symphony celebrated All Saints Day/Dia de los Muertos with two works seemingly at odds, the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in d minor, and Bartok's short, powerful opera, Bluebeard's Castle.

With a paired down chamber ensemble playing period style, the Bach glittered sparkled and reminded one of this composer's enormous genius never feeling academic but instead almost dance like. Maestro Moody gave the outer movements a brisk, almost breathlessly athletic pace, while in its gooey center movement he revealed Bach's genius at writing long, exquisite melodies, as the two violins wrapped around each other's lines in an embrace that makes it one of Bach's most beloved works.

Keeping it within the family, the soloists were PSO violinists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, each playing with beautiful baroque style and stunning virtuosity. They were rewarded with a glowing ovation from their hometown audience . . . all of us feeling the love.

Following intermission came the Bartok. I've loved this difficult (in many ways) opera since my teens, have enjoyed several live performances and most available recordings, but here, in a stripped down concert staging, it worked in a way few staged performances are capable of. Having Bartok's massive orchestra onstage allowed it to become an even greater part of the drama than from a recessed pit.

Once Moody took the podium, the house and stage lights went out, plunging the hall into darkness. Though no lighting designer or stage director was credited, one sensed immediately both lights and "action" would be part of the show. In the dark, a sounding narrator welcomed us with the Prologue of the Bard (spoken in English) as the haunting opening strains began. Dim light allowed us to see Bluebeard, Alan Held and his new bride Judith, Michelle DeYoung, enter his castle. The pair played superbly off of each other, DeYoung's Judith an enchanted young bride, reassuring her dark-souled husband of her love, while Held's Bluebeard tested her loyalty, offering her opportunities to return to her former life. Both singers were in superb voice, deftly projecting over Bartok’s dense, lush scoring even when Moody had the orchestra pulling out all the stops, including those of the mighty Kotzschmar Organ

The meat of the opera is comprised of seven closed door, each hiding a secret of Bluebeard is unwilling to reveal, until Judith demands them be opened. Bartok's tonal palette and gift of orchestration gives each of the rooms a unique sound spectrum, beginning with the first, a torture chamber. This production also had a recorded, piped in, most unsettling groan/sigh that chills both Judith and the audience. The theatrical highlight for many, including me, is the opening of the Fifth Door which reveals the vastness of Bluebeard's kingdom the organ and orchestra letting loose at fortissimo as Judith belts out a high C. The effect was heightened as from near darkness, the lights flashed on bathing the entire house in a sea of white as Ms. DeYoung, arms raised in awe, capped everything with as great a high C as I've heard, producing gasps from many in the audience. Brilliant.

At the final door, we meet Bartok's three, still very much alive former wives, representing morning, afternoon and twilight, Judith - who is midnight - must now join, leaving Bluebeard,. as he has been most of his life, alone in the dark.

I'm happy to see and hear Bartok's gem being programmed more than in years past (the nearby Boston Symphony also performed it last week), particularly when so ravishingly played as it was here. It was a highlight of Maestro's tenure so far with this organization, and a night that will not soon be forgotten, or bettered.

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