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Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Sensational ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

Early Music Now showcases Kirkby, Lindberg

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As a critic I don’t come across many breakthrough events that go far beyond expectations into sensational territory, showing what’s possible. Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance last weekend of Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle was electrifying and magnificent, the first watershed achievement of the Edo de Waart era at MSO.

Any opera is a conducting challenge, but the strangely beautiful and expressionistic Bluebeard is unusually technically and aesthetically daunting. Master opera conductor de Waart led a monumental performance that avoided the danger of disjunct in this highly detailed, episodic score, conjuring both grace and angularity, subtlety and raw power. The MSO suddenly became one of the most exciting opera orchestras in the world.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli, a distinctive and imposing physical and vocal presence, gave tragic and overwhelming depth (and astounding, unforced volume) to the tortured Duke Bluebeard. Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet’s Judith was impassioned, her dramatic soprano ripe with emotion, from soaring high notes to rich chest tones. Besides accomplished musicianship from both singers in this ideal cast, vivid and evolved acting brought this unstaged performance to life.

Noted glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s set designs, created for Seattle Symphony, amplified the piece immeasurably, lending effulgent, abstracted illustration to the six mysterious doors of the castle. Each of the six was a breathtaking, dramatically lighted, colorful revelation. It is not hard to imagine the entire set in a sprawling museum exhibit.

The opera’s impact nearly wiped away any memory of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, heard before intermission. New associate concertmaster Ilana Setapen played with lively elegance and panache. MSO violist Robert Levine’s sound lacked vibrancy in comparison.

Earlier in the week Early Music Now presented the world’s most famous star of Renaissance and Baroque music, British soprano Emma Kirkby, performing music of John Dowland and Henry Purcell with lutenist Jakob Lindberg at Wisconsin Lutheran College. Most singers attempt a restrained tone in early music. Kirkby is so perfectly suited to it that the opposite is true. Though her flawless light voice is small in sound and her dynamic range naturally limited, few classical singers perform with Kirkby’s exuberant, expressive freedom. Each phrase seems to come from her entire body with spontaneous joy. No artist uses English diction more tellingly. Singer and lutenist created a parade of magical moods, whether in dance-like high-spirits or ponderous contemplation. Lindberg’s lute solos were an amazing display of the instrument’s capabilities.