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Housewarming at Bluebeard's Castle

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Bartók, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, C. Ludwig, W. Berry, London Symphony Orchestra, I. Kertész

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Bartók, Duke Bluebeard's Castle (inter alia), M. Székely, O. Szönyi, London Symphony Orchestra, A. Doráti

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Bartók, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, London Symphony Orchestra, E. Zhidkova, W. White, V. Gergiev
The second season of Christoph Eschenbach's tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, after a slow start last fall, has been consistently rewarding since January. The programming reached its apogee this month, with an intense series of performances for the Music of Prague, Budapest, and Vienna festival this month. After Eschenbach's work at the keyboard with Matthias Goerne, in an expressive Winterreise earlier this week, he took the podium of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to lead the first NSO performance of Béla Bartók's masterful opera A Kékszakkallú Herceg Vára since Antal Doráti gave the first NSO performance of the work in 1972. The piece has not been absent in Washington altogether, since both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (concert version, in 2005) and Washington National Opera (2006, staging directed by William Friedkin) have performed it in the last decade, but the sense of an epoch-making event was palpable. The Christoph Eschenbach era at the NSO will be one to remember.

Courageously, Eschenbach paired the opera with yet more Bartók, which may have kept some of the subscriber base away, although the house was not empty by any means -- at the same time, the pile-up of music critics, and not only local ones, encountered in the house was impressive. The suite of music for the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, last conducted by Xian Zhang in 2010, kept the emphasis on exotic fairy tales steeped in blood and violence. (This rounds out the Bartók triple play of stage works, since the score of The Wooden Prince was performed by the NSO in 2009.) Eschenbach and the musicians played this evocative music to the hilt, a depiction of the seduction and robbing of three victims, culminating in the murder of the wealthy mandarin. There were a few ensemble uncertainties in the calamitous chaos of the opening section, depicting the urban tumult of the Chinese setting, which had a delightfully riotous quality to it. Many evocative solos for clarinet, bassoon, and English horn, all played beautifully, showed off the composer's skill at orchestration and idiomatic instrumental writing. It is a startlingly sensuous score, with sighs of pleasure emitted by portamenti strings and brass glissandi, its motoric drive making it an ideal companion study for Stravinky's Rite of Spring. Eschenbach led with admirable energy, encouraging a flexible sense of rubato, so the performance was not overly mechanical, but also lashing the frantic final section to a cold, steely conclusion.

The Bartók anniversary last year, honoring the 130th anniversary of his birth, also occasioned more wonderful Bartók from Iván Fischer and András Schiff with Budapest Festival Orchestra and at the Library of Congress, but this performance of the composer's opera felt like the crowning event. This was due in no small part to Eschenbach's choice of soloists, Goerne as the bloody Bluebeard and, in her NSO debut, the mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Judith. (DeYoung will be back in the city to make her role debut as Dalila in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila with Washington Concert Opera on May 13.) As she expressed in an AfterWords audience talk after the performance, DeYoung feels strongly that Judith really does love Bluebeard and does think that everything will be alright once she has opened all the doors -- of his castle or his past, depending on how you interpret the libretto. She sang with a smiling face, with perhaps just a hint of a perverse thrill at the horrors that unfolded before her. Her buttery legato and vocal power gave a surge of ecstasy to her expressions of love as she coaxed the keys to the doors from her new husband. Although her conservation of energy and the excess of orchestral sound meant she was covered at times, DeYoung unleashed a blazing high C at the opening of the fifth door, riding a huge blossoming wave of sound from the orchestra, all those planing parallel major triads, complete with a squad of heraldic brass players joining from an upper balcony.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Christoph Eschenbach, Matthias Goerne, Michelle DeYoung take on Bartok (Washington Post, March 9)

Tim Smith, Eschenbach digging into Kennedy Center's Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna (Baltimore Sun, March 7)
Goerne had his moments of glory, too, although with a more compressed tone in general, a contained, smoldering presence in the title role. The stage was set by the engaging Eörs Kisfaludy, who recited the Hungarian introduction to the opera (a corrected version of the prologue, approved by the composer's son Peter), dramatically standing in the chorister section above the stage, his voice amplified. Eschenbach kept the score moving but did not hurry through crucial moments, allowing the orchestral expressions of what Judith sees -- the beauty of Bluebeard's gardens (marked with nationalistic fervor in the score), the vista of his territory (given zing by the Kennedy Center organ, which thankfully did not malfunction) -- to fill the room with amplitude. The many seductive orchestral colors -- the jarring semitones that creep into the score as Judith notices blood spotting everything in the castle, the creepy wash of celesta, the whisper and moan of winds and the groaning castle itself (via recording) -- were all shiver-inducing. Christoph Eschenbach has done it again.

This concert will be repeated only once more, on Saturday night (March 10, 8 pm). Tonight's concert by the NSO (March 9, 8 pm) will feature a different program, repeating the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, but paired instead with Bartók's Romanian Dances, Kodály's Dances of Galánta, and arrangements of music by Liszt and Brahms.

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