Carnegie Hall 2023-24 Review: The Met Opera Orchestra’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

Elīna Garanča & Christian Van Horn Give the Best Performance of the Met’s 2023-24 Season

By Francisco Salazar

On June 14, 2024, the Metropolitan Opera presented its second program to its Carnegie Hall series which is set to go on tour later this month.

The program combined the works of Wagner, Debussy, and Bartók. The result was an uneven opening half and a second half that was perhaps one of the best operatic performances of the entire Met season.

An Uneven Start

The program opened with Wagner’s “Der fliegende Holländer” overture. Yannick Nézet-Séguin opened the piece with a bombastic sound with sloppy and overly accented strings. Then in the second theme, which sees Wagner introduce Senta’s ballad, the conductor slowed the tempo so much that the melody became unrecognizable. The third theme, which quotes the famed sailor’s chorus from the opera, was overly zealous in its accented phrasing. And in his signature style, Nézet-Séguin pushed the rallentandos in the second half of the overture to their breaking point; these pronounced tempo shifts gave the piece an overall disjointed lack of flow. By the time he got to the extremely slow coda, any chance at catharsis was lost. Because the conductor seemed overly precious about every note, every gesture, every sculpting of phrase, it ultimately ended up feeling like the performance was less about the music and more about the performer.

The second piece of the evening was Debussy’s “Suite to Pelléas et Mélisande.” The composer is known for his rhapsodic and impressionistic texturing. The musical language is lush and seeped in gorgeous coloring throughout the orchestrations. Pacing is always a challenge with his music and under the direction of Nézet-Séguin, the conductor relished in the colorful plate of the French composer’s music, especially in the wind section as the bright timbres of the instruments gleamed.

However, the reading was extremely hard to follow as the dynamics didn’t quite have a pronounced range (and when they did, it often came in the form of exaggerated, forte accenting) and, coupled with lethargic tempi, the piece lacked a sense of ebb and flow.

Props have to be given to the harp players who created an ethereal sound. Same for the timpanists, who generated excitement when they cresceondoed with their tremolos.

Opera at its Best

Despite my reservations about Nézet-Séguin’s mannered interpretations of Wagner and Debussy in the first half, there can be no doubt that his work in the second half of the program was simply sublime. Throughout “Bluebeard’s Castle,” the Met Opera’s music director flowed with Bartók’s music, the orchestra joining him for a passionate reading.

Nézet-Séguin opened the work with haunting colors that slowly evolved as each door in the score was opened. He painted each color  – from the frightening sound of the torture chamber to the rhythmic melodies of the weapon’s door to the rich colorful sound of the flowers and the mysterious and mystical glittery sound of the treasure – with a deft touch. Nézet-Séguin molded the music gradually until it exploded with power and bliss in the fifth room, the orchestra exploding with an earth-shattering sound. During the sixth door scene, Nézet-Séguin drew out the turbulent, magical, and the eerieness of what was to come in the seventh door, especially with the organ and wind sounds. As the opera concluded, the conductor returned to the enigmatic and haunting colors of the opening melody as it died out into a piano sound, bringing the entire piece full circle.

It was not all flawless, as there were moments when the conductor covered the singers, especially in the military door scene and in the sixth door. As the orchestra cresceondoed to its maximum volume, the singers were hardly heard. And in the fifth door, there was too much space between orchestral entrances that it sometimes lost the momentum of the piece. But overall, there’s no denying that this was arguably the Met’s conductor’s best interpretation of any opera with the Met this season.

In the role of Judith, Elīna Garanča was making her return to performing with the Met after a four-year absence. It’s been way too long for an artist like Garanča to be absent from the Met and on this evening she reminded New York audiences of why she is one of the best and most exciting singers today.

From the moment she entered the stage, she brought an imposing presence. And when she began singing, she drew out all the emotions of the character with her velvety timbre. At the beginning of the opera, one could sense Judith’s fear, but as she entered the castle, Garanča’s voice brought out a more sensual sound as she declared numerous times that she loved Bluebeard and as she convinced her Bluebeard to open each door. The mezzo’s voice continuously brought new colors to each door, from the rhythmic and virtuosic singing in the military door to a velvety timbre in the flower door that was heightened by gorgeous, legato phrasing. Here you could sense Garanča’s timbre gaining strength and as she got to the fifth door of the empire, the mezzo’s voice exploded with a lush and powerful sound that resonated gloriously into the hall. And during the last door scenes, the mezzo’s voice continued to gain confidence and weight until the seventh door where she delivered on Judith’s desperation upon discovering Bluebeard’s dead wives. In the final lines of the opera, the mezzo’s voice took on a darker hue, the voice more delicate and the lower notes opaque. It was a masterful portrayal that one hopes the Met can bring to the stage in the coming seasons.

In the title role, Christian Van Horn brought his acclaimed portrayal. The bass began the evening with a confident and booming sound that was both ominous and dark. There was a domineering presence to his opening lines that contrasted with the more hesitant Garanča. But as the piece delved, Van Horn’s voice portrayed Bluebeard’s fear of revealing his secret. That was especially portrayed in the final lines of the work which saw him decrescendo into a chilling piano. Throughout the evening, Van Horn’s character expressed depths of emotion and complexity as he let himself be seduced by Garanča’s warm tone. His chilling sound came to its climax as the fifth door opened and the voice regained its potent timbre which rode over the orchestra with a chilling effect. In the seventh door, as he tells Judith of his wives, Van Horn also brought out the desperation in his character but also a commanding presence that contrasted well with Garanča.

Featuring two of the best singers in the world and Nézet-Séguin at the top of his game, “Bluebeard’s Castle” was by far my favorite operatic experience of the Met’s 2023-24 season.


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