Left – Michelle DeYoung, David Robertson and John Relyea with the SSO. Photo – Christie Brewster
Bartok’s one-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, is a post-Freudian re-working of Charles Perrault’s Barbe Bleu (1697) in which the doors in the castle become the doors into Bartok’s heart. Bluebeard’s new wife Judith, like the previous three wives, wants to open all seven doors, doors which lead into extraordinarily beautiful and cruel realms of his unconscious. It thus becomes a fascinating search for mutual understanding on the part of the two people in a relationship, based on the paradigm: “Open your heart!” “Are you sure you want to see what you will find there?” What the seven doors reveal is the stimulus for some of Bartok’s most searching, profound, and varied music.
In this concert performance of the work, the role of Judith was taken by mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. Her transformation from a naive woman passionately in love, to someone broken by the emotional consequences off that love, gave her the opportunity to display the quite remarkable range of expression that her voice is capable of. Electrifying on the high notes, cavernous on the low ones, she offered a variety of vocal colours to match the amazing orchestral ones. These were galvanised to white heat by David Robertson, the chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, who combined energy with precision such that the orchestra clearly loved playing for him.
The foil to all this was the sombre figure of Bluebeard himself, sung at first with gravity and later with intense emotion by bass John Relyea, whom I now regret having missed singing King Mark in the SSO’s 2015 performance of Tristan. The part of Bluebeard is very hard indeed to pull off, seeming to forbid compassion on the part of the audience for his emotional plight, but Relyea gradually drew the audience into each of Bluebeard’s seven inner landscapes, so that we all to some extent harmonised with at least some of these magical places, finding them inside ourselves.
It was a truly wonderful experience, and really commendable that the SSO mounted this piece, challenging as it is for performers and audience alike. Wonderful as the diet of Bach and Brahms is, it needs varying. Which brings me to the rest of the concert.
Bluebeard was preceded by Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, and Bach’s cantata, Ich habe genug. Michelle DeYoung, so powerful and exciting in the Bartok, was much less convincing as Brahms’ and Goethe’s abject wanderer. For one thing, the part is simply too low for her – it demands a true Tief Alt voice, unfortunately so rare these days. And she was not assisted by the orchestra either. The work is scored for double woodwind and two horns, besides the strings, and this implies that the strings be less numerous than their full complement which is there to blend with a full orchestra. The number of strings used for the Bach cantata would have been perfect.
The whole piece gave an air of having had less attention paid to it than Bluebeard, and the emotional energy which Robertson put into the Bartok piece was nowhere in evidence in the Weltschmerz of the Brahms. To my mind this was much too “classical” a performance of one of Brahms’ most extremely Romantic compositions. The ensemble was joined by the men from the Australian Opera Chorus for the final, and most satisfactory, section.
The Bach Cantata was sung, not by Relyea, but by David Greco, familiar to Sydney audiences especially for his work in early music. He was convincing and stylish, though somewhat overbalanced by the strings in the orchestra (about half the number would have been good). Nevertheless the instruments played sympathetically and often beautifully, showing that the orchestra has not remained untouched by the progress in early music performance in this country. Diana Doherty’s performance of the oboe obbligato was simply ravishing.
The choice of these two works to open the program was interesting, the themes of emotional anguish and death being of course present in Bluebeard’s Castle, but on the whole I would have preferred other early twentieth century work – the Symphony of Psalms perhaps, or even Bartok’s own Music for strings, percussion, and celesta…however the lasting impression from the concert was the magnificent performance of Bartok’s opera. More of the same please!
Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents
BRAHMS Alto Rhapsody
JS BACH Cantata No.82 – Ich habe genug
BARTÓK Bluebeard’s Castle (sung in Hungarian with English surtitles)
Conductor David Robertson
Venue: Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 29 November – 2 December 2017
Tickets: $39 – $137
Bookings: (02) 8215 4600 | sydneysymphony.com