On Friday night, the New York Philharmonic presented two operas, semi-staged. These were Erwartung, by Schoenberg, and Bluebeard’s Castle, by Bartók. Both of them are one-acters. Erwartung is a one-singer opera and Bluebeard’s a two-singer.
Like many others, I bet, I first saw these operas when they were paired at the Met in 1989. I was not in the house; I was watching on television. Jessye Norman sang in both of the operas, and Samuel Ramey joined her as Bluebeard. James Levine conducted.
These works are not for everybody, let me say: dark, modernist, and psychological. I went to the Philharmonic on Friday night with a friend who had undergone a root canal that afternoon. We joked, “Three root canals in one day!”
The singer in Erwartung was Katarina Karnéus, a Swedish mezzo-soprano. This role can be taken by either a soprano or a mezzo. (Norman was essentially both.) Years ago at the Met, Karnéus was in a much different role, namely Rosina, the saucy girl in The Barber of Seville (Rossini). She was a very unusual Rosina—far from an Italian—but commendable.
She was certainly commendable in Erwartung.
Karnéus was at times underpowered, but she did no forcing, which was wise. She sang on her breath. She husbanded her resources, in this taxing role. Her diction was clear. And she had a sure sense of what she was doing, musically and theatrically.
Let me add that her crazy humming was one of the highlights of the evening.
There is an orchestra in Erwartung, right? Oh, yes. And a conductor, correct? Yes, indeed. The New York Philharmonic and its music director, Jaap van Zweden, were superb in this work. From the beginning, they had the squiggly anxiety. The conductor made effective use of rests. Everything in the score was clear—you could almost have written it down. Schoenberg’s pathos came through. And the score was often very beautiful. I had forgotten, or never known, how beautiful Erwartung can be.
These people put the “schoen” in “Schoenberg.” (That name, as you know, means “beautiful mountain.”)
In the orchestra, many individuals made fine contributions, but if I had to single out one, it would be Anthony McGill, the clarinet.
As Van Zweden conducted, I thought of Wozzeck and Lulu, the two operas by Berg, who was a student of Schoenberg. It would be gratifying to hear Van Zweden in those works. There is a lot of Levine in Van Zweden, and no one was ever better in the Berg operas than he.
Let me give you a footnote to Friday night’s Erwartung. At the end, someone said “Brava,” immediately—in tribute to Katarina Karnéus. This might be said to have spoiled the mood. A woman behind me, disappointed, disgusted, said, simply, “Oh.” She had no use for the “Brava”-er.
After intermission came Bluebeard’s Castle, with Nina Stemme in the part of Judith and Johannes Martin Kränzle in the part of Bluebeard. Stemme is another Swede, a soprano, and Kränzle is a German, a baritone. Both are veterans on the scene.
Nina Stemme makes a specialty of dramatic roles, very demanding. Lady Macbeth (in Shostakovich’s opera) comes to mind. So does Isolde (Wagner). Stemme made a worthy Judith. Her voice was focused and dark-hued. She thought her way through the opera, but did not overthink: she was abundantly musical. Her big high C—one of the most startling and best notes in opera—was brief and yelled. But this did not detract from an outstanding performance.
Johannes Martin Kränzle performed admirably. Like Karnéus in Erwartung, he was a little underpowered, and he did not really have bottom notes. (Bluebeard is often sung by a bass, by the way, not a baritone.) At times, Judith was more imperious and imposing than Bluebeard, which is problematic. But Kränzle had canniness—vocal and theatrical wiles—which saw him through.
What really sealed this deal—the deal of the whole Bluebeard’s—was the New York Philharmonic under Van Zweden. I will make just one point here.
When speaking of a Bruckner symphony, or a Mahler, we often speak of “pacing.” We speak of the “architecture” of the work. You don’t want to give away too much too early. You have to bear the arc of the work in mind. This, Van Zweden did with Bluebeard’s. The opera was superbly paced.
For this and other reasons, Bartók’s genius was in proud evidence.