Spend an evening in the echo chambers on the dark side of the human mind. In the King Lear Overture of Hector Berlioz, a composer who worshipped Shakespeare, the orchestra’s violas, cellos and basses come together and recite the thoughts of the mad old king. The forbidden doors of Duke Bluebeard’s gloomy castle are opened in the concert version of Bartók’s opera by mezzo-soprano Szilvia Vörös from the Vienna State Opera, who is joined by bass Mika Kares, who has performed leading roles in opera houses around the world.
A conductor born and bred in Helsinki, Susanna Mälkki grew up to the accompaniment of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2004 she received her first invitation to conduct the orchestra of which she would become Chief Conductor in autumn 2016. Her path to the conductor’s podium passed through the cello classes of the Sibelius Academy and the Edsberg Institute in Stockholm, however, and the position of principal cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. She made her conducting breakthrough in 1999, at the Helsinki Festival, and her first regular conducting appointment was as Artistic Director of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. Her Music Directorship of the celebrated Ensemble Intercontemporain (2006–2013) established her as a profound interpreter of music of the present day.
Susanna Mälkki has conducted the world’s finest orchestras. In season 2017-18 she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera season and took over as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Musical America voted her Conductor of the Year 2017.
Hungarian mezzo-soprano Szilvia Vörös (b. 1988) had no sooner graduated from the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest than she began receiving prestigious invitations. She joined the ensemble of the Vienna State Opera in autumn 2018, having made her debut at the Hungarian National Opera in 2014 and soon after in Milan, Toulouse, Paris and at the Salzburg Festival. She dreamt from an early age of one day singing Judith in Bartók’s Bluebeard but decided to wait until she was at least 30. Without sufficient experience of life and love it would, she said, be difficult to enter into Judith’s world. For Judith is bold; she is prepared to abandon her former life to discover Bluebeard’s secret. She gets him to open his heart to her, but she does not have the wisdom to stop when things are all going well. Her curiosity is tainted by jealousy, suspicion and aggression, and she must accordingly suffer the fate of all his other wives.
Szilvia Vörös clocks up three ‘firsts’ in this concert version of Bluebeard’s Castle: her debut in Finland, in this opera, and on an opera CD (to be released by BIS).
Mika Kares (b. 1978) is one of the most highly-acclaimed Finnish basses in the world today. Since making his breakthrough in 2012, he has sung at such illustrious venues as the Zurich Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, the Theater an der Wien and the Vienna State Opera, to be followed next summer by the Berlin State Opera. In future seasons he intends to concentrate on Wagnerian roles. Like Szilvia Vörös, he thought long and hard before agreeing to sing the part of Bluebeard, for he regards it as possibly the most challenging of his career.
Kares speaks fluent German and reasonable Italian, but Hungarian plunges him right in at the deep end. Not only does the music make tremendous demands: he has also had his work cut out to master the Hungarian grammar, pronunciation and stress. Yet this is still not enough; he also has to get right inside his character’s mind set.
Mika Kares has appeared with the HPO several times before: in Mozart’s Requiem in 2015, Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death in 2016, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 2018. Follow him on Twitter@MikaKares.
Hector Berlioz: King Lear Overture, Op. 4
“Magnificent, M. Berlioz, magnificent! Your orchestra speaks, and you do not need any words. I followed all the scenes: the king’s entry to the council chamber, the storm on the heath, the terrible prison scene, and the lament of Cordelia [Lear’s youngest daughter]! Oh this Cordelia! How you have portrayed her – her humility and tenderness! It is heartrending, and so beautiful!” cried the King of Hanover on hearing the King Lear Overture by Hector Berlioz (1803–1869) in 1843. In ancient times, the entry of the king used to be marked by a five-beat rhythm on a big drum. Berlioz does likewise, and when, amid the storm, Lear goes mad, the main theme is heard on the cellos and double basses.
According to his memoirs and correspondence, Berlioz was immediately taken by Shakespeare’s tragedy telling of a king who divides his realm between his three daughters, but first puts them to a test. Berlioz’s overture consequently has a strong narrative flavour. He clearly expected his listeners – like our HPO audience – to be familiar with Shakespeare’s plot and to be able to interpret the overture accordingly. It is not a happy tale.
Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11
Interpretations abound of the symbolist one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881–1945). There are only two singing characters: the Duke and his new wife Judith. His former wives have non-speaking roles. Arriving at the Duke’s gloomy castle, Judith asks for all the doors to be opened to let in some light. He refuses, but she insists on opening each in turn and in doing so is destined to suffer the same fate as all his previous wives. The drama begins with two musical motifs, one simple (the Duke) and the other chromatic (Judith). Judith is often interpreted as an aggressive woman who wants to discover her beloved’s secrets, but some scholars regard her as part of his soul. Darkness and light are the two ends of a symbolic axis. In form, the opera travels from darkness to light and back again. Historically, night signifies not only death but also ecstatic love and the mystery of the soul.
Bartók composed his opera in 1911, to a libretto by Béla Balász. He revised it in 1912/1918, and it was premiered at the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest in 1918.