Dallas — On Thursday, the Dallas Symphony presented a knockout of a concert that pushed the sonic glories of the Meyerson Symphony Center to the max.
The centerpiece was a performance of Bartók’s rarely heard one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle. This dark, strange and atmospheric piece was paired with a sparkling performance of a Mozart symphony—his “little” G minor Symphony (K. 183), so called to differentiate it from his 40th symphony (also in G minor). It is hard to imagine more diverse programming.
The Mozart came first and the opera after intermission. With a running time of about an hour, the opera is too short to occupy an entire program by itself. In the theater, another one-act opera is usually paired with it to complete an evening’s performance.
You can question whether Mozart’s symphony is the proper introduction for a visit to Bluebeard’s dank and haunted castle or not, but both received a fine performance.
The Mozart was as clean a reading as you will ever hear. It was also quite far away from current contemporary thought on historical performance practices.
Moment of Geek: But, so what. We tend to make adherence to how it was done in Mozart’s day an obsession. There are, of course, no recordings to hear, so all of what we know about music making at the time of early period comes from careful research seasoned with a dash of speculation. It is a different story if you are playing on original instruments, but Music Director Jaap van Zweden’s modern-day interpretation, utilizing all of the improvements made to the instruments over the years, was invigorating to hear.
Van Zweden returned to the podium after a long absence, reportedly to deal with a shoulder injury. He appears to have moderated his stick technique to give the shoulder less stress when on the podium and the result is quite wonderful. His motions during the Mozart were precise, always appropriate, controlled and expressive—and he got those exact same results. He still micromanages but the results are hard to argue with.
The immensity of Bartók’s opera demands a very different kind of conducting, but even here, much of the tension and pugilism that has marked his style was gone. When required, his gestures were as big and as forceful as the music required, but no more than that. The results were stunning, only marred by occasionally covering the singers.
Probably in a concert performance it is impossible to avoid covering the singers here and there. Bartók writes for a huge orchestra. He uses four of most of the winds and brass. To this, he adds an outsized string section, organ, two harps, celeste, lots of percussion, and an eight-piece offstage brass ensemble. The moment, in the middle of the score, when the entire ensemble played tutte forza with the Lay Family Organ thundering, was awe-inspiring.
The opera only calls for two singers: Bluebeard and Judith, his unsuspecting (and latest) wife. Both voices are in the lower ranges: a mezzo-soprano and a bass, which adds to the dark and brooding nature of the music. The plot comes out of a work by the French author Charles Perrault.
Judith has just married Bluebeard and is arriving at his castle, which is something out of the darkest imaginings of Steven King. There are seven locked doors that Bluebeard forbids her to open. Of course, she demands that they be opened and each hides something that at first appears wonderful but is bloody and grotesque upon further inspection. He last and final door contains his other wives, kept in some sort of limbo, which she must now join.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who sings a lot of Wagner, certainly has the pipes for this role. In one climatic moment, she let loose a perfectly produced high note that dwarfed the orchestra and organ playing full out. On Thursday, it was one of the most spectacular high notes in memory. She also did a remarkable job of acting.
How singers should deport themselves in a concert performance of an opera is a conundrum. This is dramatic music, meant for the stage. However, you cannot do even a greatly reduced version of the stage movement in the small space allowed in a concert performance. DeYoung solved this problem elegantly and effectively by acting out the role using only facial expressions. Watching her face, you knew exactly what Judith was thinking and we shared in her tragic discoveries.
Matthias Goerne was magnificent in his last appearance with the DSO in January when he gave a definitive performance of Mahler’s orchestral song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn. As Bluebeard, he is still wearing the same rumpled and ill-fitting suit he sported before and his performance was just as magnificent. His voice is immense in overtones as well as volume. He stood by as Judith self-destructed in a resigned and deject manner. He knew, or at least suspected, what the end result would be, no matter how much he wanted things to be different this time. He rumbled out warnings and endearments, but to no avail.
Dallas is rich in opera right now. Two are playing in superb productions by the Dallas Opera in the Winspear Opera House next door to the Meyerson. If you want to see them all, perhaps it is best to leave Mozart’s perfect comic opera, The Marriage of Figaro, for last. The women in both Bluebeard’s Castle and Richard Strauss’ Salome meet a gruesome end. In Mozart’s opera, the ladies triumph over the silly men, leading them on a merry chase—and all ends well for everyone.