This week at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the two halves of the program were like night and day — or day and night, to put them in order. How do you solve a problem like “Bluebeard’s Castle”? Running roughly an hour long, Bela Bartók’s one-act psychological drama opera is simply too short to stand on its own as a BSO program, but neither does it easily slot alongside any piece in the standard repertoire. This week, the BSO and guest conductor Karina Canellakis presented the opera in concert on a program with Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C. The execution of both was nearly flawless, the juxtaposition of the pieces made the program feel like two separate, self-contained events, and that’s the only complaint I have about anything that transpired Thursday night at Symphony Hall.
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein was the featured soloist in the Haydn concerto, and the sun seemed to shine in every gesture. She rendered the solo in the same clean, bold lines that were mirrored in her scarlet jumpsuit, traversing the piece with the easygoing nonchalance that only comes from hours of dedication. Under Canellakis’s direction, the small orchestra created a light, translucent sound for the solo to dance atop. The slow adagio provided a gorgeous respite before the virtuosic romp of the final movement, and Weilerstein was enchanting throughout. As an encore, she offered the meditative Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4.
It almost felt unfair to Weilerstein’s sunny star-turn to make it share the program with the darkness of “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Darkness, above all, is what characterizes “Bluebeard’s Castle,” a Symbolist adaptation of the fairy tale of the rich nobleman whose wives have all mysteriously vanished. In the most famous version of the tale, documented by Charles Perrault, Bluebeard’s virtuous, innocent new wife discovers the non-metaphorical skeletons in his closet and manages to escape. Bartók’s approach with librettist Béla Balázs was decisively less straightforward; in the opera, Judith’s curiosity does not lead to her death, but it leads her to knowledge she cannot unlearn.
The spoken prologue, sometimes omitted from performances and delivered at the BSO by actor Jeremiah Kissel, made it clear that though the two singing characters had deeply human characteristics, the audience was encouraged to consider the story as a mirror for the human soul. “Where did this happen? Outside or within? . . . Where is the stage? Outside or within?”
Canadian bass-baritone Nathan Berg was a last-minute replacement for the ailing Johannes Martin Kränzle as Bluebeard, and a fortunate find at that. His Bluebeard both looked and sounded every inch the sorcerer, brimming with power that seemed to frighten even himself. Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill made a dramatically savvy and vocally powerful Judith, hues of innocence, curiosity, love, and despair flickering across her face as well as her voice. Her repeated intonations of “Szeretlek” (“I love you”) sounded achingly sincere.
However, Bluebeard and Judith are nothing without their castle — which appears on the list of the opera’s dramatis personae — and that role was played to the hilt by the orchestra and Canellakis. Stone, flowers, blood, and tears were just a few of the castle’s furnishings that found keen representation in the music.
The concert staging was quite effective as well. Keeping the conductor’s podium between Bluebeard and Judith, never allowing them to touch, harmonized with the opera’s dreamlike atmosphere. The stage lit up with different colors as each door in the castle was opened; during the sequence for the fifth door, which revealed Bluebeard’s kingdom with a tremendous, towering C major chord, the house lights rose up to full brilliance, and every face in the hall was illuminated. As listeners, we were part of the castle too.
That tableau of togetherness only made the ending feel more chilling, as Cargill’s Judith wilted under Bluebeard’s praises. At last the singer sat in her chair, eyes downcast, her light disappearing entirely. BSO dramaturgs take note; this is how you evoke an exit without your leading lady leaving the stage.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall. Repeats Feb. 10. www.bso.org