The Doors of Perception
Richard Strauss: Macbeth
Bela Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle
Petra Lang (Judith)
Kolos Kovats (Bluebeard)
Andras Marton (speaker)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)
The shape of the intellectual history of the twentieth century is a particularly odd one. The great discoveries which molded the entire tenor of the age were all made at the beginning of the period and the remainder of the decades, like the later years of John Gabriel Borkman, were but a pale and often destructive shadow of their former selves. Unquestionably the two most important figures of the period, Einstein and Freud, published their earthshaking findings early on and the freshness of the creative response to these innovative precepts becomes less and less crisp as the century drags on. Mirroring the history of serious music, the 1900’s started in greatness but ended in mediocrity.
One of the most exciting new vistas in those heady early years was the idea of a physical landscape of the mind. Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are two of the best examples of these new scenic surroundings, but the finest version of all was developed in Hungary. The Belas Balazs and Bartok fashioned an extremely imaginative and disquieting journey to the center of the psyche which the composer eventually saw as a member of a naturalistic triptych, sharing an evening of shocking intensity with his Wooden Prince and Miraculous Mandarin (in an interesting pairing, the Metropolitan Opera once presented Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung in the same Jessye Norman tour-de-force). Although librettist and composer labored over the stage directions for the original, the very nature of its subject matter (and expansive musical promptings) allows this disturbing piece of musical theater to be equally effective in a concert version, the listener’s imagination even more uncompromising in its assignation of delight and horror to the surprise of what is behind each individual door.
Wolfgang Sawallisch, who in a recent season consisting entirely of music of the last century demonstrated his affinities for this dissonant and complex idiom, led his orchestra in an excellent performance in the presence of the Minister of Cultural Heritage of the Republic of Hungary and many other invited guests of the Hungarian Cultural Center which opened earlier this evening here in New York. The writing for the instrumental forces is really the best feature of this modern classic and much of it is extremely colorful. The orchestra was especially adept at this emotional shading, expertly producing the chilling effects that accompany the opening of each door. Quite a bit of the ensemble writing is at a high volume level and the Philadelphians proved their mettle by never wavering in their intonation no matter how many f’s there were in the score. Plumbing the depths of emotional and musical dissonance, Sawallisch never felt the need to hold his troops in check, rather unleashing their nightmarish fury for all to experience. What suffered as a result, however, was the audibility of the singers, often swallowed by the appetite of this orchestral predator.
After Ramon Vinay had been singing Otello for thirty years and could no longer hit the high notes, he began a successful second career in the same opera as Iago. Kolos Kovats has made the role of Bluebeard his own, performing it for many years now, including over 100 times at the Erkel Theatre in Budapest alone (many will remember him from the old Solti recording). What was difficult to decide last evening was whether Mr. Kovats wished to express extreme world-weariness in his characterization of this intensely private new husband or if indeed he himself is simply weary of the role. Always wishing to be charitable, let’s assume that this is all part of the act and that the craftsman within is trying to express (quite rightly as it turns out) that there are really two victims in our story (you can hear Bartok’s fear of intimacy in every bar-his dedication of the piece to his new bride is particularly idiosyncratic). The resulting portrayal of this Monty Hall in Hell reminded me of many of the Wotans which I have encountered over the years: their phlegmatic delivery and weakness of voice may be in character, but ultimately their performances are not top shelf as there is no sense of their descent to this level of discomfort. Petra Lang was a strong-voiced but disappointingly one-dimensional Judith that acted quite enthusiastically with her face within the context of a concert version but did not translate these emotive techniques to her vocalism. She was able to stand up to the assaults of the orchestra better than the more sensitive but less strident bride that I heard at my last concert version, when Anne Sofie von Otter could not compete with a blaring Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on this same stage two seasons ago, but this repetition of problems of acoustics leads me to question the viability of this particular work in concert. It appears that the pit and the proscenium are needed to preserve the delicate balance of the synaptic topography.
Although not paired this night with The Wooden Prince, the opera was coupled with another work wherein the forests move in an anthropomorphic manner. The curtain raiser was a febrile reading of Strauss’ first effort at tone poetry that received a performance far superior to what it actually deserves. One could hear the embryonic structure and utterances of Heldenleben buried within the phrases, but this excessively overheated pastiche is little more than the ejaculations of a teenager; for this listener the Scot that came to mind was not Macbeth but rather Braveheart. We’ll chalk this revival up to the conductor’s Teutonic upbringing and take away from this night that spectacular sonic evocation of the hidden recesses of activity forever fomenting in our own troubled minds.
Frederick L. Kirshnit