Bartok's arresting one-act opera, "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" is an implacably dark tale about untethered emotions, padlocked secrets, and the dangers of prying open the hidden chambers of the soul. James Levine led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a chilling performance of this rarely heard work last night, paired with Brahms's First Symphony.
The opera's libretto, by the writer and film theorist Bela Balazs, is a heady cocktail of tense eroticism and eerie symbolism inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck. It builds on the famous Bluebeard legend but transposes the drama to an interior castle, a secluded place of deep solitude and yearning. The work traces the unfolding intimacy between Bluebeard and his fourth wife, Judith, as she probes into his fortress by opening up each of seven locked doors. The walls of the castle weep and sigh. Behind one of the doors lies a lake of tears. Behind another is a lush garden full of "man-sized lilies." Almost everything Judith discovers is stained with blood.
But best of all is the dazzlingly lush and opulent score. It was written by a youthful Bartok in 1911, with hints of Strauss and Debussy, and a wonderful palette of impressionistic effects -- the kind that would be perfected a few years later in the operas of Franz Schreker. As the drama unfolds, the orchestral music not only discloses the couple's tortured inner states but also describes the secrets that lie behind each door with an almost cinematic grandeur. When the fifth door reveals Bluebeard's expansive kingdom, the brass unleash a blazing fanfare and you can almost feel the riot of light rushing into the dark castle.
Levine led a performance both exciting and exacting, with immense control over the subtle blends and bright splashes of color. The mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter sang the role of Judith with beauty and emotion though sometimes without the requisite strength and steeliness to cut through the giant orchestra. Albert Dohmen was a commanding Bluebeard, singing with a deeply resonant bass-baritone, if not always with the ardor one might have expected from the anguished duke. Örs Kisfaludy delivered a vivid spoken prologue, a part usually left out of concert performances. In one surprise, the BSO chose not to provide supertitles, as were recently offered for "Moses und Aron." They would have definitely been helpful here.
After intermission, as he wrote in a program note, Levine wanted to offset the darkness of the Bartok with a strongly contrasting work. Brahms's First Symphony certainly fit the bill. The broad yet tender lyricism of the second movement felt miles away from Bluebeard's dark blood-drenched corridors, and after the chill that descends in the final bars of that opera, the audience seemed grateful for the warmth.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.