As the 19th century yielded to the 20th, physicians increasingly investigated the mind as an essential domain of medical practice. In the 1880s, Sigmund Freud, the most acclaimed practitioner of the new methods of psychology, hoped to uncover the secrets of his patients’ minds through hypnosis. He moved on to “talk therapy,” inviting subjects to express freely associated thoughts from the couch in his Vienna office for what he termed psychoanalysis. During the first decade of the new century, like-minded practitioners joined Freud, including at a groundbreaking conference in Salzburg in 1908. Quite a few founded psychoanalytical centers in their home cities—Carl Gustav Jung in Zurich, for example, or Sándor Ferenczi in Budapest.
Artists were quick to follow psychologists into the recesses of the mind. The New York Philharmonic links two early “psychological masterworks” of opera in a double bill this month: Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation) and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. They emanated from two hotbeds of psychoanalysis, 150 miles distant from each other—Freud’s Vienna and Ferenczi’s Budapest—and they were composed only two years apart: Erwartung in 1909, Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911.
“It was a time of very intensive movement in society,” says Swedish director and set designer Bengt Gomér, whose production will be given its US Stage Premiere by Jaap van Zweden and the Philharmonic, September 26–28. “It was a time in Europe when art, mathematics, physics, theories about what the psyche is—everything was on edge. Psycho-analysis was a new, hot thing. The unconscious, or the subconscious, was suddenly thrust to prominence as the instigator of action and emotion.”
Both operas focus on searching. In Erwartung a woman (portrayed here by mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus) makes her way through a moonlit landscape, down a road, through a forest, into a clearing, searching for her lover, whom she eventually encounters under horrifying circumstances. “It is a very complicated piece,” says Music Director Jaap van Zweden, who is conducting Erwartung for the first time in his career. “I think there are 181 changes of tempo in a piece which is 25 minutes long. It must be a bit of a nightmare for a singer to learn this piece by memory, and then she has to act, as well—quite something! The conductor and orchestra have to be right with her for all of those 25 minutes, and she needs to feel she can do what she wants musically, emotionally, and dramatically.”
Bluebeard’s Castle also documents a quest. Duke Bluebeard (baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle) shows his new wife, Judith (soprano Nina Stemme), around his castle, with considerable reluctance. “Like Erwartung, it is absolutely about your interpretation,” says Gomér. “What you think is happening will depend on what you yourself want to look at. He is charismatic, and she challenges him to go deeper and deeper. She goes there of her own free will.”
In Gomér’s staging, the orchestra is in close proximity to the dramatic action. The Philharmonic has occasionally ventured into operatic productions before, to very positive response. “It has fascinated our audiences to see the Philharmonic in a different light,” says Deborah Borda, the Orchestra’s President and CEO. “It has also fascinated the musicians, and one way we keep this institution robust and vital is to challenge our musicians; playing in an opera is simply very different from playing in a symphonic concert. In addition, when the music is performed on the stage rather than from a pit, you hear the orchestral parts in a very different way—audiences can find that quite thrilling and surprising.”
“This is going to be a very dark evening,” van Zweden observes. “Murder lies beneath the surface throughout. Both pieces are strongly connected to a mindset of terror and despair.” It will be an evening about the mind turning toward frightening realms that reside within, with groundbreaking musical scores enhancing the exploration in a way that the audience is not likely to forget.
James M. Keller is beginning his 25th season as the New York Philharmonic’s Program Annotator, The Leni and Peter May Chair.