The solo protagonist of Erwartung, Schoenberg’s one act “monodrama”, appeared in front of the audience at the beginning of the second half of the double bill concert. In clear English, the Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus recited the prologue of Bluebeard’s Castle: “Let the tale be told... but where did this happen, outside or within? We must watch and listen.” Earlier, the heroine of Bluebeard’s Castle, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme introduced Karnéus' Erwartung with a brief song by the same title accompanied by a harp. Having the two singers appear in each other’s performance emphasized the common thread of the two works: a woman’s psychological struggle with love, sexuality and madness. With a brilliant staging by Bengt Gomer (set and lighting) and his team, the semi-staged concert was a superb realization of complex musical drama that engaged all our senses, gripping and absorbing.

Katarina Karnéus in Erwartung
© Chris Lee

It seems a little over the top to begin Erwartung with an autopsy at a hospital. A large platform was erected back above the orchestra, where all the action took place. In the director’s view, there is no ambiguity; the body is that of the woman’s lover. Bluebeard is present during part of the scene, perhaps to suggest continuity of the two tales. The heroine arrives with a suitcase and launches her fiendish monologue recounting her love affair as her mind wanders in and out of reality and time. Karnéus was splendid as she negotiated the challenging vocal lines of Schoenberg’s atonal music with her sumptuous and flexible timbre never giving way to screeching high notes. High up on the platform, she looked and acted demented, as the projected image of a hospital door and corridor on the screen in the back came in and out of focus and overplayed with trees as reflection of her mental state. She uncovers the body under white cloth at the end to reveal a mannequin head attached to a tree trunk. We also see a deer in projection towards the end.

Nina Stemme in Bluebeard's Castle
© Chris Lee

The staging of Bluebeard’s Castle was more straightforward and successful. Instead of the doctors and servants of the first piece, we see seven veiled women in rose-colored dress on stage. They rise from their seats on the side to cast their images from the back of the screen as the seventh door is opened. They join Judith in silent unison at the end as Bluebeard lays down on the mound in the center as in death. Other than colorful lightings and projections to suggest the seven doors of the Castle, the stage was bare, save for the mound. The two protagonists, Johannes Martin Kränzle as Bluebeard and Stemme as his bride, Judith, were asked not only to sing Bartók’s complex and often dissonant music in Hungarian from memory, but also to act as multifaceted characters. Bluebeard is stern and determined at first, only to crumble under his new wife’s determined demand to reveal the castle’s secrets in full, hence to unveil his deep psyche. Judith is a blushing bride at the beginning, only to be transformed into a woman half mad with her desire to possess her husband’s secrets. The pair wrestle, make love, dance to the folksy music and retreat into their private hell: in the end Judith looks at Bluebeard on the mound, flanked by his seven former wives.

Johannes Martin Kränzle and Nina Stemme in Bluebeard's Castle
© Chris Lee

Bluebeard is usually sung by a bass or bass-baritone, so it is an odd choice to have Kränzle, a baritone, for the role. He was excellent, coping with the role's tessitura with ease, beauty and nuance. His use of declamatory singing was also effective. Stemme depicted Judith as an independent woman who coaxes, cajoles and blackmails her husband. In the process she revealed herself to be unbalanced. Her singing was assured and expressive. Her warm and powerful voice rose up to penetrate the thick orchestration without losing color, and her high notes were remarkable both in their accuracy and smooth continuity from her lower voice. Another triumph for the soprano who keeps adding new roles to her repertoire.

The three excellent soloists had a remarkable partner in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Jaap van Zweden, who led an incisive, eloquent, and expressive performance without being bombastic as is often the case with Bluebeard’s Castle under different conductors. The strings were a standout, with the violin solo highlighting crucial moments in both pieces with crystalline beauty. Nancy Allen accompanied Stemme in the song Erwartung with elegance and precision. The orchestra played the challenging modern pieces with eagerness and force mixed with quiet subtlety. It was a rare New York evening to savor the 20th-century one-act operas performed by extraordinary singers and splendid orchestra.