Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Opening Doors: Esa-Pekka Salonen and the NYPhil

On Tuesday night, Esa-Pekka Salonen drew from the New York Philharmonic an exceptionally fine performance, where passion and energy overflowed, but not at the expense of nuance in dynamics, tempi, and of course, in drama!  The opening piece, György Ligeti's "Concert Românesc" was overflowing with passion.  I was unfamiliar with the piece, but I'd love to hear more of it; the program note informed me of Ligeti's interest in folk music, and echoes of dancing tunes (and Alphorns!) were clearly audible.  Deliciously surprising things happened to the form, there was off-stage brass, great, vigorous playing from the entire orchestra, and delightful violin work--given the Gypsy influence, I'm tempted to say fiddling!--by Glenn Dicterow in the finale, which made me want to get up and dance.   I assumed Haydn's 7th symphony had been selected because its common title, "Le Midi," giving it a thematic link to the Bartók.  The program note was helpful here, too; apparently the symphony was composed shortly after Haydn entered the employ of the Esterházy family, explaining how he made it into a series called "Hungarian Echoes."  Salonen and the orchestra also made a good case for its inclusion as a work that, like the other two on the program, pushed the boundaries of expected form and had a lot of fun doing it.  The music was rendered with a passion, precision, and panache that Haydn certainly deserves but too seldom, I think, gets.

And then there was the opera.  In the interval, I chatted with the lovely Opera Lady next to me, and she asked if I knew the piece.  I answered brightly that I did but had never heard it live.  "You're not prepared," she said.  "There's nothing that can prepare you for hearing this live."  She was right.  I was perched tensely on the edge of my sixth-row seat (yay, Student Rush) wringing my hands through much of it.  The hand-wringing was an outlet reducing the likelihood of whimpering, bursting into tears, or screaming "Go to him, Judith, and love him, damn it!" or "Stop being mean, Bluebeard; she just wants your trust!"  I can hardly express my admiration for how Salonen conducted this piece, and how the NYPhil played it, enough.  There were times when Salonen just let the singers respond to each other with his arms at his sides... but the energy of his leadership was untiring, the precision unerring, and the sound!  From eerie, spine-tingling, am-I-really-hearing-that subtlety to crashing waves of glorious noise that split the difference between romantic and modern, that vibrated through the floorboards, through my bones, through my soul, I loved it.

This is an old fable, the prologue says.  But it's not the Barbe-Bleue of my childhood.  In the Bartók drama, Bluebeard and Judith are not villain and victim.  And I think it's worse than lazy to say that they are "man" and "woman."  They're two human beings, full of doubt, pride, need.  And Michelle DeYoung and Gábor Bretz got that, and communicated that.  This is not to say that I would be prepared to analyze their interpretations; I'm still confused as heck about what it all means.  But in a good way.  Both of their reactions suggested to me that the reality inside the doors was created by their perceptions, at least partially, and this is an idea that fascinates me.  (Parenthetically, the surtitles used a new translation by the composer's grandson rather than the standard mid-century one.  There were some notable improvements in fidelity, and I liked the more direct vocabulary.)  Not only did DeYoung and Bretz both give hugely impressive vocal performances, but they communicated emotion with an intensity and sensitivity that I'd count myself lucky to see in a full production.

I'd barely even heard of Bretz before last night, but he had me fascinated.  I thought his voice had a distinctive sonority, and real beauty.  And despite my speaking no Hungarian (well, I know how to say "thank you," now... and "castle," for what that's worth) he shaped the text so that it affected even me.  Felsz-e?  I shivered.  Bretz' Bluebeard could be menacing, yes, and could be cruel... but he also suffered so that it hurt to look at him, hurt to listen.  And he was charismatic enough that Judith's gladly forsaking family to marry him was readily credible.  On her website, DeYoung opines that Judith "has about five million sides to her."  The mezzo's engagement to the role shone; with her trust and her fear, with her love and her suspicion--expressed through gesture and looks as well as the voice--she broke my heart.  After hearing her in Das Lied von der Erde, I didn't need further proof that she could make herself heard over a huge orchestra and sound good doing it, but she did.  That high C on the Fifth Door was a visceral delight, and indeed, the warm, full sensuality of her voice was a pleasure throughout; I thought she was stunning.  The singers worked together beautifully, too; they responded to each other; they wounded each other; they so credibly desired each other that Salonen's podium sometimes seemed to be as in the way as the conductor was vital.  Did I mention that the orchestra was amazing?  In the silence before Salonen lowered his baton, I realized that my heart was, actually, racing.  Köszönöm.

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