When I heard the New York Philharmonic play Bluebeard's Castle last year, it was my first live Bluebeard and also the first time I'd heard or seen Michelle DeYoung, although of course I knew her by name and illustrious reputation. That concert was a revelation on all fronts (not least for the tenor in my life, who'd never heard the opera in any form until that evening) and we immediately booked to see it again a couple of nights later. It was also that evening that we decided Bartok should be reanimated and compelled to write a companion piece for mezzo and, well, heldentenor of course. Still waiting on the technology for that one.
Wwe only had to wait a year and a bit for another hit (or three) of Bluebeard, however, this time in semi-staged concert performances with the San Francisco Symphony. In the meantime I've heard Michelle in three countries and four cities – sometimes with my tenor and sometimes without – and she's become not only one of my favourite singers in the world, but also somebody I'm fortunate to count as a friend. Which might make me biased, except that she's so objectively fantastic that it hardly matters: you really don't need to be biased to be a fan of Michelle.
The trip to San Francisco was a plan hatched many months ago. Three Bluebeards in three days, with Michelle and the wonderful Alan Held – Wozzeck to Stuart's Drum Major in his Met début last year – and MTT himself at the helm? We were powerless to resist. Life was made even easier when a recording session (at Capitol Records no less!) took Stuart to Los Angeles at just the right moment to facilitate a quick jaunt north. Although not as quick as it should have been – thanks to an impressive seven hours of delays, we missed the first half of the concert (Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1) but did make it, unbelievably, in time for Bluebeard.
It was worth the tense taxi ride and the super quick change at the hotel. Obviously. I'd half forgotten just how magnificently creepy this opera is. The New York Phil performances were a blazing sensory assault. The SFS and MTT burnt a little slower but no less intensely, and raised more goosebumps than ever. I dearly wish that I had one of those Men In Black mind wiping devices so that I could forget about Door Five in between times; but even anticipation can't extinguish the visceral thrill of a concert hall suddenly lit up and an electrifying Michelle DeYoung High C.
And while I may occasionally have hashtagged to the contrary, it isn't all about Door Five either: there's so much to love and be spooked by, from the torture chamber to the garden to that room full of [SPOILER ALERT] undead wives. I particularly love the pool of tears too. And all the blood. The armory became a new favourite during these concerts, partly because it started to remind me of the final scene of Vec Makropulos, which is up there with Door Five among my favourite operatic moments. It's all so good. I can't help thinking that for a certain kind of newcomer, this could be an ideal first opera: it really does have all the makings of a potent gateway drug.
Everything I wrote about Michelle's Judith last year still applies. Her transformation from nervous newlywed into a sensual She Who Must Be Obeyed was extraordinary. Judith might have entered several cautious steps behind her dark horse Duke but by the end of the night she was circling him like a shark. You'd give in too. In fact her singing alone would be ample persuasion. She easily encompasses all the role's crazy extremes; Door Five is amazing, clearly, but then so too are her gossamer pianissimi, emerging as if from nowhere and then blooming before us. My words are a pale substitute, but you get the point. She's awesome.
Also excellent was Alan Held as Bluebeard himself, dark and dangerous but with a dash here and there of humanity. He didn't just lurk in corners looking like a murderer. You could believe in his reluctance to show Judith his bloodstained secrets, and in his anguish at her increasingly inevitable fate. But you could also believe in his violent voice, particularly as embodied in such a compelling voice. Like Michelle, he manages to combine full-on power with genuine beauty of tone, which always makes for the best sort of villain. They were an inspired pairing.
These performances were semi-staged on a raised platform at the rear of the stage, and framed by video projections – some literal, some abstract. I was particularly fond of the bloodstained roses and the wispy shadows of former wives; the moment when Judith joined them also made very clever use of the choir stalls. Placing singers behind the orchestra is always a daring move – particularly with a score that gets as loud as this one does – but in fact the balance was remarkably good, at least as far as I was concerned. I was also happy at last to see the famous Michael Tilson Thomas in action, and to hear Jeremy Denk, a long time blogging idol of mine, in the eclectic Liszt concerto. Basically it was an all star line up.
It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, with three concerts in three days and several sets of San Francisco friends to see – not to mention the airport drama, which naturally spread to include our return trip as well. But a whirlwind full of such great artists and friends, and with a Bluebeard's Castle at the centre of it, is absolutely fine by me.