REVIEW: NY Philharmonic Focuses Spotlight on Expressionism
Above: Johannes Martin Kränzle and Nina Stemme in Bluebeard’s Castle. Photo by Chris Lee.
September 29, 2019
By Brian Taylor
Overheard, entering David Geffen Hall, prior to the New York Philharmonic’s hot ticket double bill of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle: “This is exciting, honey! You’re about to hear the best thing happening all season.”
Overheard at the same performance’s intermission: “Well, next time I’ll be sure to bring you to something accessible, something you’ll enjoy…”
Enjoyable or not, no-one could argue that Music Director Jaap van Zweden and visionary CEO Deborah Borda aren’t keeping the New York Philharmonic and its audience on the edge of their seats. These semi-staged performances pushed the limits of the hall’s theatrical possibilities, and proved that van Zweden is not all about bombast. Here, the Phil became the world’s finest pit orchestra (as they occasionally do) in a few of the twentieth century’s most intriguing musical dramas.
Pairing Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung (Expectation) with Bartók’s two-hander Bluebeard’s Castle makes for a grim evening. Schoenberg’s Expressionist work examines the mind in the moment of trauma. Bluebeard’s Castle covers similar ground, with additional symbolism and Hungarian motivic ideas. But the theatrical concept of Swedish director/designer Bengt Gomér, in his Philharmonic debut, is in step with the latest in European theatrical concepts. Like the fashionable Ivo van Hove, this approach rests on coldly presenting the situation, while not telling us how to feel about it. That is left up to the text, the music, and the imagination.
The director unifies the two pieces in what the program described as a “psycho-dramatic exploration.” Themes from the time in which these two ground-breaking composers worked — psychoanalysis, hypnosis, the subconscious, and so forth — seem to infuse both works, and through these, Gomér holds the evening together visually. His staging especially heightens the emotional impact of the Bartók.
The vocalists were exceptional. Nina Stemme, star of the operatic stage, first appeared with a bouquet of flowers and sang an early art song version of Erwartung by Schoenberg — in a late Romantic style, composed a decade before the opera — with harp accompaniment. During this, on the elevated stage, an autopsy is grimly performed by a group of non-singing actors. Then, for the 1909 monodrama itself, mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus assumed the role of a woman wandering in a forest, searching for her deceitful lover, ultimately uncovering his dead body (and a creeping feeling of guilt). Like a German Expressionist painting, a moment of emotional upwelling is extended over an abstract half-hour canvas.
Karnéus was magnificent, with a vibrant, rounded tone, and crisp, expressive diction. Van Zweden led a taut, urgent account of the dense, atonal score, keeping the orchestra under tight reigns, allowing the singers to be clearly heard.
Bartók’s equally dark symbolist score from 1918 fared just as well. Stemme, devastated as just-married Judith, touring her husband’s castle digs, urging him to reveal what a series of locked doors conceal — and the answer does not bode well for a happy ending. In the titular role, baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle was ironically sympathetic; their romantic chemistry hovered in the air. Video projections lent an atmosphere, the sparest hint of a setting, and Gomér’s lighting design made spectacular use of the hall’s lighting capabilities.
Bartók's music is one of the finest achievements of the twentieth-century, and van Zweden masterfully distilled the score’s many corners and climaxes into a well-lit theatrical journey. This is might be his finest work with the Philharmonic yet, and Gomér’s austere staging made an impact.
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