The main attraction of this Philadelphia Orchestra double-bill was Bartók's searing one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear the familiar ballet music from Swan Lake, served as an appetizer, performed with fresh and unexpected insight by the brilliant musicians, led by young, energetic Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Both pieces were couched in an overall theme of sweeping and romantic melodies, which suited the bright and clear acoustics of the Verizon Hall.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve
Mr Nézet-Séguin favored brisk tempi throughout and did not dwell on subtler shadings or shifts in instrumental color. His was a straightforward, sincere and yet thrilling account that brought out the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. If his aim was to present the audience with the music untethered from a need to accommodate physical demands of ballet dancers, he succeeded most brilliantly. We did not hear the exaggerated melodies of the Spanish, Neapolitan or Russian Dances, nor the Dance of the Little Swans, punctuated with audience applause when presented in a ballet. Instead it was a coherent set of vignettes focused on an overall arch of recurring themes and motifs.

The orchestra was not secondary to this symphonic presentation, however. Close attention was paid to delineating individual sections and instruments. A trumpet solo in the Neapolitan Dance and a delicate and vibrant violin solo in the Russian Dance were particularly impressive. The brass and percussion sections made magnificent contribution to the tutti of the ballet's finale. Mr Nézet-Séguin acted more as a skilled team leader to the orchestra than as a brilliant but autocratic leader.

He continued his collegial approach in Bluebeard’s Castle, and succeeded in bringing out the best from his soloists and orchestra Bartok’s dark tale of a woman’s doomed love for a dangerous man, in a concert performance stripped of staging, emerged as a not-so-distant cousin to Tchaikovsky’s romantic tragedy. Beautiful melodies and harmonies were emphasized, prominent in the stirring strings. Ominous undertones and dissonances were there, but its foremost representative was John Relyea’s resonant bass. Amid the shifting color of strings, winds and brass describing first the threat of the Bluebeard’s castle and then Judith’s hopeful lightness, back to the final tragedy, Mr Relyea’s penetrating voice provided a steady and unwavering mood of sheer darkness and despair.  

Michelle DeYoung’s mezzo lacked the strong core of Mr Relyea’s voice but the fuzzy vibrato that sometimes crept into her voice was not incongruous to Judith’s naive and ill-advised trust in Bluebeard. She projected innocence and youth with her bright and open singing, and her clear and penetrating high C at the fifth door was a brilliant climax. The two soloists, without score, with poise and confidence, used their facial expressions and body movements to express the essence of the characters.

Taking advantage of the vast height of the hall, several brass players were stationed high up above the orchestra. Together with the organ located nearby, the brass highlighted the crucial themes in the early sections, and were subdued and yet devastating in the final moments. Mr Nézet-Séguin took care to give prominence to the orchestra when soloists were not singing, emphasizing strings and subtle woodwinds. One might have wished for more variety in tempi and dynamics as he was again more concerned with an overall arch and coherence of the music. Just as he did in Swan Lake, his main contribution here was to surprise us with a different approach to a masterpiece, and he succeeded in injecting fresh excitement and wonder in his happy collaboration with his orchestra and soloists.