San Francisco Symphony Unleashes a Terrifying “Bluebeard”

United StatesUnited StatesLiszt, Bartók: Jeremy Denk (piano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Alan Held (bass-baritone), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 21.6.2012 (HS)

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle


Judith: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
Bluebeard: Alan Held (bass-baritone)
Speaker: Ken Ruta


Director: Nick Hillel
Video and visual design: Nick Corrigan
Lighting design: David Holmes
Set design: Adam Wiltshire

It’s difficult to think of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat as a curtain-raiser, even as played by as redoubtable and thoughtful a pianist as Jeremy Denk. He and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas gave the 20-minute concerto a rousing go, playing the florid parts with great élan and bringing a good deal of intelligence to bear on the structure and flow.

For Liszt’s time, the mid-nineteenth century, this counted as fireworks. But following it up with the technicolor sonic explosions of Béla Bartók’s one-act opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, had the effect of relegating Liszt’s showpiece to a sort of prelude. Though both composers were Hungarian, the seven decades that separated these works saw them building their music on distinctly Hungarian folk song.

Bartók’s Bluebeard, completed in 1911 but not seen until 1918, revels in symbolism and eschews standard operatic arias in favor of extended parlando. In that, it owes much to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, written two decades earlier. Bartók’s vocal lines are rooted in the Hungarian language’s rhythms, Debussy’s in French. Other differences are palpable. Where Pelléas requires nearly four hours, Bluebeard gets its work done in about one. Debussy’s musical language aims for subtlety and reflection; Bartók goes for big dramatic strokes.

For both operas, however, the important stuff happens in the orchestra, which is why Bluebeard is often heard in concert. In Thursday’s opening performance of this semi-staged version, designed in 2011 for the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony grabbed the music and ran with it. Every episode in the score had its own colors, its own underlying pulse. And that tempo never flagged, with the music grippingly telling the story. It helped that both of the singers are experienced Wagnerians, accustomed to making long stretches of narrative ebb and flow dramatically. Bass-baritone Alan Held (in the title role) and Michelle DeYoung (as his newest wife, Judith) gave the conversational musical lines enough shape and texture to hold the audience, even if they never got to burst out into an aria or duet. Held showed power at all points in his range, and DeYoung simply devoured the music, articulating every note with amazing accuracy and focus. (Held also stands a few inches higher than the six-foot-tall DeYoung, creating a more believable-looking couple than she and John Tomlinson made in London.)

The staging makes lavish use of projections. The images play on a simplified castle-like structure that envelops the stage and on origami-like shapes that hang above—twisting, spreading and turning. The production team, led by director Nick Hillel, also uses timely touches of red lighting to enhance the bloodier aspects of the story.

The folk tale, which has been around in different forms for centuries, involves a wealthy but unhappy nobleman who brings his most recent wife to his castle, where she find a series of locked doors. Bluebeard tries to dissuade her but she insists on unlocking them. Behind the final door are the previous wives—depending on the version, as few as three or as many as seven—either dead or trapped for eternity, and she must join them.

In Hungarian poet-dramatist Béla Balázs’ libretto, each door reveals a different aspect of Bluebeard’s psyche. The first is a torture chamber, the second an armory, the next a treasure trove, and then the castle’s garden appears. Bartók’s music turns on dime, with wrenching dissonances and ratcheting xylophones for the torture chamber, blazing trumpets for the armory, flute chords with celesta and a solo violin for the treasure, and shimmering string chords with a horn obbligato for the garden.

The orchestra articulated this music with dazzling, shifting colors, but it was all prelude to the spectacular moment when the fifth door opens to the vast reaches of the duke’s domain. Davies Hall’s Ruffati organ blazed forth with sustained chords, amplified by extra trumpets and trombones arrayed above left and above right of the stage, an immense and beautiful torrent of sound. With a screaming high C from DeYoung and the sudden brightness of the lighting, it was also absolutely terrifying.

As powerful that passage was, the hushed arpeggios from the harps and celesta that followed were lacy and detailed, portraying a calm lake fed by the tears of the past wives. The dreaminess of this music acidulates and goes wonky in the final segment, wherein Judith wheedles the key to the final door. We see shadowy images of the three previous wives, the first found at dawn, the next at midday and the third at sunset. Judith was found at midnight but has, until this moment, brought only sunlight to Bluebeard’s dark castle. Condemned to join the previous wives, she leaves the duke in utter darkness, his fate for the rest of his life. The hushed rumblings in the orchestra that conclude the score couldn’t have been more haunting, as the stage faded to black.

Harvey Steiman