Review: San Francisco Symphony thrills with 'Bluebeard's Castle'

SAN FRANCISCO — Everyone is doing it. Symphony orchestras putting on opera, that is.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic received the lion's share of national attention for its high-profile Walt Disney Concert Hall production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" last month, but the Cleveland Orchestra also presented a highly regarded concert performance of Strauss' "Salome" in May at home and in New York. On Thursday night, the San Francisco Symphony got into the act with an innovative semi-staged version, replete with immersive video, of Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle" at Davies Symphony Hall.

The gripping production, which runs through Saturday night, is conducted with a dark and mysterious warmth by Michael Tilson Thomas. And it is, in fact, San Francisco Symphony's second theatrical project during this, the orchestra's centennial, season. In the spring, Tilson Thomas and the symphony staged excerpts from John Cage's "Song Books."

But back to "Bluebeard's Castle," and for that blame, at least a little bit, the L.A. Phil. In November 2010,Esa-Pekka Salonenbegan a "Bluebeard" obsession with a concert performance at Disney. He then created a "Bluebeard" production with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, and toured it widely throughout Europe.

In April, Tilson Thomas presented the U.S. premiere of the Philharmonia's "Bluebeard" with his New World Symphony, the multimedia production being a perfect fit for Frank Gehry's New World Center in Miami Beach. Now, with this production reaching San Francisco, opera's most intriguing serial killer is back on the West Coast to snuff out his fourth wife, Judith, once more, although in a very different manner than he did at Disney Hall.

Bartók's only opera has, in fact, always been more at home in the concert hall than the opera house. An early, hour-long work for two singers written when the composer was 30, "Bluebeard" tells its creepy symbolic story mainly through a large and flamboyantly imaginative orchestral score, which means much is lost by burying the instruments in the pit.

The Philarmonia production attempts to offer the best of both theatrical and orchestral worlds. The concept comes from British video artist and filmmaker Nick Hillel, who also made an immersive, 25-screen video installation "RE-RITE," based on Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" for Salonen and the Philharmonia.

For "Bluebeard," he has created a series of arresting shaped backdrops on which video images can be projected. Smaller sculptural shapes on motorized rigging are suspended over the stage. They fold and unfold like origami and change character as different video images are projected. The baritone Alan Held (Bluebeard) and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (Judith) were on a platform behind the orchestra. The musicians were raked around the backdrops, with the brass placed in the seating area on the two sides above the stage.

While the production is complex (the credits list a dozen names), it is also respectfully unobtrusive, meant mainly to create an atmosphere. In the opera, Judith, newly married to the notorious Bluebeard and taken to his castle, demands that seven locked doors be opened. In each is the appearance of a different quality of human suffering, deliciously orchestrated to create a decadently attractive sexuality.

Hillel bathes the stage in tears and blood-dripped blooms. When the fifth door opens to reveal the wide expanse of Bluebeard's estate, the orchestra bursts into one of the most glorious climaxes in all opera. For that, Hillel shines blinding light in our eyes — a stunning simultaneous short-circuiting of the ocular and auditory nerves. The seventh and last door is where Bluebeard's three previous wives reside in zombie-like state, making room for Judith.

The performance began with a powerful reading of an odd minstrel prologue by the actor Ken Ruta, which Bartók's librettist Béla Balázs used to introduce the opera but which is often omitted. The weakest part of the production was the staging by Jose Maria Condemi, who had Bluebeard and Judith go in for a lot of conventional melodrama (ignoring the reasonable modern tendency toward a revisionist feminist interpretation of the opera). But Held is a forceful singer who held the stage, and when DeYoung unleashed her wild side, she became a fine force of nature.

Tilson Thomas' approach was unusual. Rather than emphasize the sheer orchestral brilliance and rhythmic élan of Bartók's early style, combining Hungarian folk music with Modernism, the conductor revealed a moody understated richness that proved disturbingly expressive. It felt somehow very Hungarian, although Hungarian conductors tend to be more aggressive with this score.

To set the Hungarian mood, Tilson Thomas opened the program with Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1. The orchestral playing was also understated here, and sophisticatedly so. The pianist was Jeremy Denk, who was maybe a shade too sophisticated with his playful rhythmic fillips. But he found his own way into a war horse.


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