Five years after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra scored a remarkable success with an opera in concert form - Tchaikovsky's shimmering Iolanta, one of music director Yuri Temirkanov's greatest moments here - the ensemble is finally returning to the format, and in a daring way.
Duke Bluebeard's Castle, an hourlong, infrequently encountered opera written in 1911 by Bela Bartok, is a masterpiece of Expressionist and Symbolist art.
On the surface, it's familiar horror story stuff. Bluebeard's latest wife, Judith, demands to see what is behind each of seven locked doors in his castle. Big mistake.
But there's more to this opera. In a prologue, Bartok's librettist, Bela Balazs, provides a crucial clue to what this fascinating piece is all about: "The tale is old that shall be told, but where does it belong - within or without? ... Where is the stage - within or without?"
The key to Bluebeard's Castle, then, is deep inside the characters, and each of us. Bartok's richly colored music carves a fascinating path toward that inner truth.
Kwame Ryan, the Canadian-born conductor who made a memorable BSO debut last season, will be on the podium for the concerts, which feature mezzo-soprano Anita Krause, baritone Peter Fried and dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts. The program also includes Ravel's Mother Goose Suite.
Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For tickets, call 410-783-8000.
Verdi's swan song
Meanwhile, for something completely different - and fully staged - Peabody Opera Theatre presents Verdi's astonishing swan song, Falstaff.
The composer was pushing 80 when he created this whirling opera. With a clever libretto by Arrigo Boito that drew from multiple Shakespeare plays, Verdi fashioned an indelible portrait of corpulent, hopelessly vain, womanizing Falstaff and poured into the score remarkable melodic warmth, harmonic sophistication and structural ingenuity.
Falstaff, directed by Roger Brunyate and conducted by Hajime Teri Murai, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Peabody Conservatory, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place. Call 410-659-8100, ext. 2.
For the record
Just for the record, here's some local music-making I'm glad I heard recently.
Katherine Needleman, the BSO's sterling principal oboist, gave an imaginative recital last Friday for the Music in the Great Hall series at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church.
She brought her familiar tonal warmth and technical shine to a program that included the world premiere of David Ludwig's mercurial, vividly colored Pleiades: Seven Microludes for Oboe and Piano (written for Needleman). Amy Klosterman was the oboist's excellent accompanist.
The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra sounded off-kilter much of the time Nov. 9 at Goucher College led by Markand Thakar. But the humor and rich texture of Stravinsky's Pulcinella came through nicely; solos by bassist David Sheets and trombonist Chris Dudley had particular flair.
Although guest artist Keng-Yuen Tseng revealed more courage than technical brilliance in Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1, he effectively mined the lyrical gold in this show-off score.
Jonathan Lemalu, the New Zealand-born Samoan baritone, had persistent trouble in his upper register during a recital Nov. 6 for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. Still, his ability to sculpt communicative phrases paid off handsomely in Schumann's Dichterliebe, with superb support from pianist Malcolm Martineau.
And the singer delivered a group of William Bolcom's Cabaret Songs with considerable character, notably the Randy Newman-like "Waitin'" and Kurt Weill-esque "Song of Black Max."
George Lam, a recent Peabody Conservatory grad, sounds like a composer with a future. His Homecoming ... , efficiently performed Nov. 4 by the Peabody Concert Orchestra with Grant A. B. Gilman conducting, recalls John Adams in its rhythmic motion and rich instrumental textures. The assured work loses its compelling hold only in the is-that-all-there-is ending.
`Porgy' lighting design
I missed an insert in the program for Washington National Opera's production of Porgy and Bess announcing a change of lighting designer, which caused an error in my review. Mark McCullough deserves the credit for enhancing the set.