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Music Review : Nagano Attacks ‘Castle’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bela Bartok’s “A Kekszakallu Herceg Vara” (Bluebeard’s Castle) is the Hungarian composer’s sole venture into opera. Composed in 1911 and submitted to a national competition for the best lyrical work of the year, the one-act opera was resoundingly rejected as “unperformable.” Bartok went into a deep depression and stopped composing for a while.

The allegorical drama--on one level about the mysteries and dangers of probing a person’s inner life and mind--was finally produced seven years later, however, and subsequently became enormously popular in Hungary.

While not a “La Boheme,” it is not exactly a rarity here either. Los Angeles heard it in a concert version in 1968 on the Philharmonic series, with Christa Ludwig as Judith and Walter Berry as Bluebeard. Zubin Mehta conducted.

Lawrence Foster led the Philharmonic in 1980 with Katalin Kasza and John Cheek. Pierre Boulez conducted the orchestra at Royce Hall, UCLA, in 1989 with Susan Quittmeyer and Laszlo Polgar. The Metropolitan Opera in New York mounted a production the same year for Jessye Norman and Samuel Ramey.

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Thursday, it was Kent Nagano’s turn, with Ildiko Komlosi and Kolos Kovats in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The program also included works by Ravel and Mendelssohn.

The results were mixed. Nagano rose to the dramatic climaxes with heroic attention, but elsewhere let tension and concentration of mood flag. His sharp and angular directions didn’t always translate into crisp, accented phrasing, however. So maybe he wasn’t getting everything he wanted from the orchestra, which mostly played brilliantly but occasionally overpowered the singers.

Komlosi brought a smallish but attractive mezzo to Judith and sang with imaginative, characterful detail, even evoking a sense of Greek tragedy in the way her quest for the truth led to her destruction. Kovats was a stoic Bluebeard. Vocally, he was erratic, woolly and blustery in some of the earlier forceful or faster declamations, but he came into powerful, even fervent focus toward the end.

The work was sung in Hungarian, with English translations projected above the stage. Whatever discomforts and disadvantages they entailed, they at least allowed us to hear text that closely fit the music, unlike Chester Kallman’s English version, for instance, which shifts many basic accents and makes Bartok’s vocal writing sound occasionally strained and awkward.

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Actor Michael Laskin read the Minstrel’s brief enigmatic prologue in English, here in rhymed couplets.

Before intermission, Nagano conducted the Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” in a careful, methodical reading, characterized by clear textures and, in the Danse Generale, rhythmic precision. Janet Ferguson provided lovely flute solos.

He opened the program with a genuine rarity--Mendelssohn’s Overture for Winds, Opus 24, written when the composer was 15 but reorchestrated by him 14 years later. It isn’t a neglected masterpiece. The two-part work begins as a nocturne that doesn’t quite anticipate its famous counterpart in the incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” then shifts to a good-humored but, as heard here, raucous gallop. Nagano conducted with great attention to detail.

* The program will repeat tonight at 8 in the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $10-$100. (714) 740-2000. Also, on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. $6-$58. (213) 365-3500.

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