“This is my torture chamber,” says the namesake in Bluebeard’s Castle. “Your torture chamber is horrible!” exclaims Judith, his bride. Such is the libretto to Béla Bartók’s only opera. Its wooden dialogue and B-grade slasher plot would justifiably draw snickers were it actually staged. Thankfully, at the Kennedy Center this weekend, it isn’t: For an audience to relish its music, performed beautifully by baritone Matthias Goerne and mezzo Michelle DeYoung backed by the National Symphony Orchestra, that’s a wise move.
The singers agree. During a post-performance Q&A, DeYoung (Judith) reflected on a time when she had to perform the opera dressed as a candy striper and sing while pushing Bluebeard around in a wheelchair. In high heels. But Thursday night, Goerne and DeYoung summoned all the morbid thrills of Bartók’s score, unencumbered by plot points that make audience members wonder, “Isn’t a tour of a torture chamber kind of a red flag on a first date?”
The pair initially seemed oddly paired, but were ultimately well-balanced—-both splendid in their own way. DeYoung, all smiles and big hair, is a towering figure, nearly eclipsing NSO director Christoph Eschenbach even on his podium. Her voice can tremble, bellow, or ooze like lava. Goerne, frowning in a V-neck, gave a powerful performance as Bluebeard. Not normally a bass-baritone, Goerne was more at ease in the upper register but sufficiently intense at the lower end, his warm but stern delivery conveying a barely concealed homicidal mania. DeYoung communicates emotion with her face, arching and furrowing her brows at each realization that she’s made a bad decision. Goerne is impassive and zombie-like, appropriate for a character whose most romantic line is “cooling, blissful is the welling up of blood from open wounds.”
Eschenbach led the NSO in a terrific performance that drew out rich colors. He also snuck some trombones into the balcony halfway through; a cute trick that’s been done before under Leonard Slatkin. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that Eschenbach got so carried away that he occasionally buried the singers under the orchestra.
Thursday’s all-Bartók program began with his suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, yet another violent fantasy that invites plenty of amateur psychoanalysis of the composer (indeed, three of the post-concert audience questions were about Freud). It’s a huge, kitchen-sink orchestration, bigger even than Bluebeard—-the NSO had eight basses on stage—-and at times, it sagged under its weight. From the chaotic intro by the second violins to a tighter theme by the violas, to a very nice clarinet solo (and a generally excellent job by the woodwinds), to blaring interjections by the horns, Mandarin was exhilarating, but barely held together. Eschenbach exaggeratedly slowed and sped up the tempo at key passages for maximum dramatic effect. (He had a rep back in Philly for doing this without warning, including switching up tempos between rehearsals and performances, to the annoyance of his musicians.) Eschenbach’s seat-of-the-pants thing works best when he’s focusing on a single section, but when the full orchestra attempts it on a piece like Mandarin, things can get wobbly. Certain hardcore bands can pull off the almost-falling-apart sound—-Damnation A.D. did it best—-but symphony orchestras shouldn’t try.
This program kicks off the NSO’s unimaginative “Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna” festival—-which must have barely beat out the “What the Hell, Music by Dead White Guys” festival. Of the three cities highlighted, Budapest may be the most exotic, but Bartók hardly counts as nonstandard repertoire. Eschenbach admitted as much when one audience member asked him why he thinks Bartók is underappreciated; Eschenbach replied, “He isn’t.”
It’s a little ironic that Bartók, the man who brought Hungarian peasant dances to Parisian concert halls, for years couldn’t get anyone in his native Hungary to perform his take on the French folk tale of a duke with a nasty wife-killing habit. But with Goerne and DeYoung, it’s in good hands.
DeYoung and Goerne perform Bluebeard’s Castle again on Saturday at 8 p.m, in Hungarian with English surtitles. Friday’s NSO-only program pairs The Miraculous Mandarin with a selection of Hungarian and Romanian dances, also at 8 p.m. All performances at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $20-$85. (800) 444-1324.