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A Tale of Two Cities

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
09/26/2019 -  & September 27, 28, 2019
Arnold Schoenberg: Vier Lieder, Op. 2: 1. “Erwartung” – Erwartung, Op. 17
Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11

Katarina Karnéus (mezzo), Nina Stemme (soprano), Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone), Nancy Allen (harp)
New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (conductor)
Bengt Gomér (director, set and lighting designer), Per Backjanis (costume designer), Per Rydnert (video designer)

N. Stemme

“It is essential for the woman to be seen always in the forest, so that people realize that she is afraid of it!! For the whole drama can be understood as a nightmare.”
Arnold Schoenberg, letter to the Intendant of the Berlin Opera, April 14, 1930
“Till you can cast away the octave and its sentimental associations, you walk in fetters of convention.”
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

I. Vienna

In the 1990’s the Metropolitan Opera under James Levine mounted an extremely intense double bill of these same two operas now offered in a staged version by the New York Philharmonic. The MET had two superstars, Jessye Norman and Samuel Ramey, on board and so this production by Maestro van Zweden et al. has a lot of precedent to challenge. It is an especially welcome endeavor since the MET revived the Bluebeard recently but paired it with a short Tchaikovsky!

Where to begin? Erwartung is the first work for the stage written in the “atonal” (Schoenberg preferred “pantonal”) style and is still a shock to the system today. A visit to the Schoenberg museum in Vienna (relocated from Southern California) offers a visual and aural reconstruction of its revolutionary creative process. Some of its shock value may have worn off, as music continued to venture down this previously forbidden path for a couple of decades, finally crystallizing into more pseudo-tonal constructions (ironically invented by Schoenberg himself with his dodecaphonic system), but that should not cloud a modern interpretation and celebration of this masterful style.

David Geffen Hall is not set up for opera and so it was interesting to see how maestro would solve the many challenges of positioning for these two iconoclastic theatrical events. The solution, a platform at the back of the stage that housed the thespian and pantomime elements of the two main works on the program, served reasonably well. This construction allowed the main character of the evening, the orchestra itself, to breathe free.

The evening began promisingly with a fine version of the Schoenberg song with the same name as his later theatrical work. Nina Stemme was expressive and in fine voice while orchestral superstar Nancy Allen was equally elegant. These less than three minutes were superb, however none in the audience realized at the time that they were to be the highlight of the evening.

Things began to ravel immediately when the monodrama of Erwartung commenced. Mezzo Katarina Karnéus was not always audible above the huge orchestra that was, after all, directly between her and us. Her soft passages, of which there are many, were virtually inaudible and this was a shame as this revolutionary music needs considerable air to breathe freely. The subtleties of this monodrama were swallowed whole by the instrumental leviathan between the mezzo and her listeners. At the conclusion of the piece it appeared that Ms. Karneus was injecting herself with some sort of drug, although I believe that her pantomime was meant to indicate that she was committing suicide. Meanwhile above the action a group of somber doctors were performing an autopsy on what would turn out to be a deer! This was less expressionism and more surrealism. The image simply did not fit the sung narrative.

II. Budapest

If an opera is to be judged by its effect on an audience, then Bluebeard’s Castle may be the greatest of all time. One litmus test is what occurs right after the ending. Is there immediate applause?

Doubtful. There is instead at least a moment of breath-catching, for no stage work in memory has as shocking an ending as this psychological masterpiece. As in the Schoenberg, the subconscious is one of the main characters of the piece. As Josephine Tey says in Brat Farrar: “That is the horror in murder. The domesticity of it.” Alas, the shock value of the story was destroyed by its opening, as the seven (yes, seven!) murdered wives of Bluebeard were visible on that stage even before the drama began!

Overall this was a much better performance than the Schoenberg monodrama. Ms. Stemme was back and did a fine job. Unfortunately her Bluebeard, Johannes Martin Kränzle, was considerably weaker, being often virtually inaudible up on his platform. On the reverse side of the same coin, the Philharmonic was superb (how many years have we been waiting to say that!) and quickly became the star of the show. Of course, the great shock of the ending was defused by the ex-wives being around from the beginning – not just dramatically but musically as well – so the horror was significantly mitigated. And who was that seventh wife? Isn’t that Judith’s place in line? Overall, a daring effort, but one which fell victim to somewhat sloppy storytelling.

It is significant that Erwartung was composed in 1909 but not premiered until 1924, while Bluebeard was penned in 1911 but did not see the stage until 1918.

Fred Kirshnit



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