The Doors of Perception swung wide at Symphony Hall as Charles Dutoit led the Boston Symphony in an unusual and engrossing pairing of Mozart’s boisterous, Haydenesque Symphony no. 39 in E flat, K543, and Bartók’s one-act opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, aptly described by Zoltán Kodály as a “musical volcano that erupts for sixty minutes of compressed tragedy”. Perhaps it was the symphony's bold harmonics and use of dissonance which led Dutoit to program it. Perhaps he felt its sunny disposition provided a welcome contrast to the murky id of Bartók’s opera. Regardless, this combination was definitely an acknowledgement of the orchestra’s virtuosity and the orchestra did not fail him.

Ildikó Komlósi, Charles Dutoit, Matthias Goerne and the Boston Symphony © Robert Torres
Ildikó Komlósi, Charles Dutoit, Matthias Goerne and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Symphony no. 39 is the first of Mozart’s final three composed during a particularly fertile period shortly after the première of Don Giovanni. Though it is definitely from the same sound world as the opera it also looks back to Haydn, notably in the largely monothematic closing Allegro. A whimsical, mischievous undercurrent bubbles throughout the work. Right from the start, this symphony without a final coda begins teasing the listener’s ear with a slow, dignified opening which seems like a coda in the making, similar to the first chords of Die Zauberflöte. Attuned to the score’s playful aspects, Dutoit led a lithe, buoyant reading, maintaining a balance in the reduced orchestra which allowed the winds to be heard as clearly as the more numerous strings and the orchestra as a whole to sing. The nimble-footed Allegro scampered along, flashing a final wink as it ducked out of sight.

Bela Balázs called his symbolist one-act play in verse, A Kékszákállú herceg vára, a “ballad of the inner mind” underscoring the point by adopting as his dominant meter the trochaic tetrameter of Magyar folk ballads. Bartók, who had just begun collecting and studying Hungary’s folk music when he turned to setting Balázs play in 1911, used those traditional settings as the template for the syllabic parlando rubato he developed for Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The vocal line remains declamatory and, with rare exceptions, within the limits of the spoken word. Bluebeard's line is straightforward and plain; Judith’s chromatic and rhythmically varied as befits her role as the bringer of light to her husband’s dark castle.

Matthias Goerne’s ripe dark baritone evoked the Duke’s crabbed, conflicted personality. He was score-bound, but the aloofness that conferred served the character, as did his sensitivity to the drama. His Duke was not resigned, but uniquely torn and hesitant about conceding the final two keys to his bride. Ildikó Komlósi sang from memory and in her native tongue. She also had the added benefit of having performed Judith with Dutoit at the BBC Proms in August. Her ease with the language and the part showed most in the physical freedom and confidence she brought to her portrayal, her earth-toned mezzo conveying a more determined and substantial persona than the usual soprano but still capable of unleashing a startling high C at the opening of the fifth door. But the false dawn of this door soon gives way to the horrors of the next two, returning the castle to darkness and robbing Judith of her identity and her voice as the vocal line becomes sparer and sparer before petering out into silence. Komlósi was unusually effective in bringing this transition to life vocally and dramatically.

In Balázs’ play, the opening of each door has its own lighting scheme and set of effects. Bartók’s score builds on the fact that the drama lies in what is perceived and described by transforming each opening into its own mini tone poem with a different mix of instruments taking the lead, building up to the sunburst C major tutti along with Judith’s high C which flares at the opening of the fifth door. Dutoit drew the appropriate color and balance from the orchestra to depict what each door reveals and captured the subtle psychological shifts in the interplay between the two characters in a performance which was dramatic, majestic, and haunting. The extra brass for the fifth door and the wind machine's chilling sighs were included, as was the often omitted spoken prologue, theatrically delivered in Hungarian by linguist, George Meszoly.  

With its lack of stage action, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, seems tailor-made for concert performance, since in each case the orchestra supplies the visuals. A powerful piece to begin with, the power and impact of Bartók’s opera is magnified in the intimacy of the concert hall. Friday’s performance made Symphony Hall seem almost too small to contain it.