Bartók-Schoenberg Is Super-Dramatic Pairing At NY Phil

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The New York Philharmonic is seizing opportunities to present grand-scale, forward looking operas such as Bengt Gomér’s pairing of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle,’ above, and ‘Erwartung,’ led by Jaap Van Zweden. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK ‒ With increasingly frequent forays into semi-staged opera, the New York Philharmonic still isn’t destined seriously to compete with the Metropolitan Opera next door in Lincoln Center. However, the Philharmonic is creating a crucial platform for grand-scale, forward-looking works that might not carry their weight at the Met box office, such as Julia Wolfe’s hybrid work Fire in My Mouth and David Lang’s prisoner of the state earlier this year and now the Bengt Gomér production of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The U.S. stage premiere (a collaboration with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra) was presented as a double bill Sept. 26-28 at David Geffen Hall.

Though this Schoenberg-Bartók pairing appeared at the Met in 1989 (a tour de force for Jessye Norman), who knows when it might return? With video design by Per Rydnert, the production elements unfolded in a rear-stage platform overlooking the orchestra. Both works were given credible renderings: The singers were excellent, with Nina Stemme and Johannes Martin Kränzle in the Bartók and Katarina Karnéus in the Schoenberg, all supported by strong-minded readings from the Philharmonic under music director Jaap van Zweden.

Nina Stemme, as Judith, among Bluebeard’s hovering, silent wives. The lighting tends toward pale blood-hues.

In the Bartók opera, Bluebeard’s previous wives were seen loitering about the stage throughout the performance, dressed in nondescript reddish earth colors. And as Bluebeard’s new bride Judith demanded to see what was behind the closed doors of his castle, a video screen with an abstract vortex progressively mutated in terms of color and content, often turning red, since everything was tinged with blood but also with something of a computer animated rainstorm for the lake of tears. Herein lay the primary problem: The screen was roughly eight by ten feet and far too small to make the kind of impact that was possible, particularly if you attended the Philharmonic in recent weeks when Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (a not-so-distant psychological cousin of these operas) was shown on a large screen with live orchestral accompaniment.

Kränzle, as Bluebeard, with Stemme in a playful interlude.

What the staging unexpectedly delivered was a sense of how the characters evolve over the hour-long work. Usually the audience has to take the Bluebeard-Judith romance on faith since their main activity in the opera is multiple power plays over which of the doors is opened ‒ and what that means. The shifting dynamics were there as much as ever. But there were also interludes of affection, at turns playful and passionate, that gave extra context to their more tortured moments. This was a physically animated Bluebeard’s Castle, with humping, groveling, and dancing in what were at least 25 shades of gray.

Native Hungarians in the audience weren’t at all impressed with the singers’ command of the language, though I felt the intent of the words came through powerfully, especially from Kränzle, with his lean, articulate voice and mercurial temperament, in contrast to so many Bluebeards who stand by watching Judith dig her own grave.

Stemme’s more tone-heavy voice was less crisp but gave Wagnerian weight to everything she sang, proving there’s life after singing Isolde. Vocal lines in early scenes lay a bit low for Stemme (Judith is often sung by mezzos), particularly since this is not the most interesting part of her voice. But as the opera progressed, her singing, acting, and stage charisma became all of a piece, and quite a memorable one. Van Zweden’s level of insight into the score ‒ and his ability to project that in the kind of towering sonorities the Philharmonic is capable of ‒ was astounding.

Erwartung is such an uncompromising work that one should be happy that it came off as well as it did. The 1909 monodrama was written by Schoenberg in a white heat. Mostly atonal but not yet with the benefit of his 12-tone system, it is an extended mad scene about a woman who discovers the corpse of the lover she may herself have murdered. Taking the YouTube tour of Erwartung in advance, I discovered a vocally compelling but visually inert concert performance by Karita Mattila and an enthralling film starring Karan Armstrong (directed by Götz Friedrich and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen), whose lighter-than-usual voice revealed plenty of uncharted contours amid the woodsy, nocturnal landscape suggested by the libretto.

Katarina Karnéus, in ‘Erwartung,’ as an anguished woman who may be repressing the truth about a corpse she encounters.

Gomér eased the audience into Schoenberg’s tortured, feverish world with the composer’s song of the same title (written ten years before the opera in 1899) accompanied only by Nancy Allen on harp ‒ a prelude that gave way to an autopsy scene presumably on the corpse that the opera’s protagonist stumbles upon. Atmospheric touches, often achieved by lighting that signaled when reality cuts through her anguish, were the primary production effect. It was a bit disappointing but so much better than nothing in this infrequently heard work.

For all of the health and coloristic resources of Karnéus’ mezzo-soprano, she had a way to go in terms of projecting the character’s shifting levels of perception. Certainly, she had sympathetic accompaniment from van Zweden, who conjured sonic flash fires along with the production’s abrupt lighting changes but generally approached the score with a non-explosive lyricism that I’ve never heard or envisioned. Was it wrong to tame this ultra-Expressionistic work in this way? No. The score has so much innate hysteria that a clean, clear surface revealed plenty of seldom-heard dramaturgical details. That’s the challenge with Schoenberg: making constructive choices among the many layers of instrumental options that this great composer incorporated into his music.