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Hysteria at the Phil

New York
, 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

Opening week in New York rose to dizzying heights of excitement with the Metropolitan’s Opera opening night new production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the hysteria over the sexual harassment allegations against Plácido Domingo, who withstood them until the eve of his scheduled performance in Verdi’s Macbeth, when he withdrew from the production and all future Met appearances. The mood for the New York Philharmonic’s innovative staging of this program of explosive works of the expressionist genre, offered in their American premiere in collaboration with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, gave the audience much to think about in the realm of gender relations if that is all music now means.

Rarely for performances of Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung, which the late soprano Jessye Norman memorably sang on the Met stage, Bengt Gomér’s production was preceded by a performance of Schoenberg’s song “Erwartung,” one of a four-song cycle. Nina Stemme’s strong interpretation, modulated through her cool Nordic tones, made one wish she were on all night, but alas it merely whetted our appetites for the second part of the concert, in which she took the role of the naďve Judith in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Katarina Karnéus, however, did a superb job relating the wavering emotions of the nameless woman of Erwartung the opera, who searches for her unfaithful lover while cycling through feelings of anticipation, anxiety, and fear of abandonment before finally finding him dead. Gomér depicts her as a traveler, carrying around a suitcase. When she discovers the body, which is concealed under a white sheet on a hospital gurney, it turns out for no readily apparent reason to be a dead deer. The musical quality was there, but this odd production trick seemed like a satire or joke on her profound feelings, which I, at least, came to enjoy.

Bluebeard made rather more sense. Performed, as was Erwartung, on a platform over the orchestra, the opera’s title character, voiced with ardent desperation by the talented baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle, forces his attentions on Judith while taking her on a tour of his castle. Its secret doors lead variously to his torture chamber, treasury, lands, and finally, his wives, but in the video projection the footage merely followed a tunnel in what looked like the depths of a mine. Stemme’s powerful voice captured the part with smooth lucidity, bringing the anxiety of Judith’s naďveté and the final horror of her imprisonment forward in a captivating performance.

The New York Philharmonic has taken a critical beating over the past decade or so, but under its relatively new maestro Jaap van Zweden it delivered a strong performance in what might be its best repertoire.

Paul du Quenoy



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