Tuesday March 7th, 2017 - Basso John Relyea (above, in a Shirley Suarez portrait) gave a thrilling performance of the title-role of Béla Bartók's BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE at Carnegie Hall in this concert with The Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
In a somewhat incongruous pairing, the evening opened with excerpts from Tchaikovsky's SWAN LAKE. It goes without saying that the Philadelphians played this music sumptuously and on a grand scale, yet to my companion and I, it seemed something of a wasted opportunity for this great orchestra to play such super-familiar music when we could think of so many other works - ranging from Wagner to Stravinsky, from Ravel to Rimsky-Korsakov - that would have made the evening more intriguing. The stringing together of 'greatest hits' from Le Lac des Cygnes made us feel we were at a pops concert, for all the glorious appeal of the playing.
But we'd come for the Bartók, and conductor and orchestra were magnificent in this dark and brooding masterwork: we were drawn - immediately and deeply - into Bluebeard's world of mystery and terror. The Duke has brought his new wife, Judith, to his shadow-filled, joyless castle. In her eagerness to bring light and love to her unfathomable husband's life, Judith demands that a series of seven doors be opened, and that he reveal all his secrets to her so that his soul may be un-burdened and their life together be a happy one. Like Elsa in LOHENGRIN, Judith pushes her inquisitiveness too far and in the end, despite Bluebeard's passionate warnings, she insists that the seventh door be opened; and there, Judith finds herself doomed to join Bluebeard's previous wives in endless gloom.
The score's abundance of moods, from creeping dread to the dazzling radiance as the fifth door is opened revealing the vastness of Bluebeard's realm, were brilliantly set forth in Maestro Nézet-Séguin's masterful pacing; the musicians were - at every moment - deeply involved, and the numerous coloristic effects in Bartók's writing loomed up splendidly one after another.
Michelle de Young sang Judith; hers is a voice I've never been able to relate to, and although she had the role well-in-hand and pulled out a sustained high-C to celebrate the fifth door's opulent opening, I found myself wishing the role had gone to someone else.
John Relyea's Bluebeard was one of the most the most glorious and satisfying operatic interpretations I've experienced in the past twenty years; odd that these memorable performances - Christine Goerke's Elektra, the Wozzecks of Matthias Goerne and Simon Keenlyside, Tomasz Konieczny's Jochanaan - are happening in concert halls rather than at The Met.
Be that as it may, Mr. Relyea tonight had no need of sets, costumes, or stage direction: he simply was Bluebeard. Throughout most of the performance, he stood stock-still: a mesmerizing, vampiric presence of chilling power. The voice was huge and hall-filling, and yet when he pleaded with Judith to abandon her questionings and simply love him, Relyea's tone was flooded with tenderness. For unfettered vocal generosity and charismatic presence, John Relyea's Bluebeard was astounding.