If ever there were an operatic argument for gals getting to know their guys really well before shacking up with them, it would have to be Bela Bartok's deliciously creepy one-act offering from 1911, "Duke Bluebeard's Castle."

Consider the scenario: A lithe young lovely by the name of Judith arrives on the threshold of her new -- and much older -- hubby's domicile, a dark and foreboding castle with seven locked doors inside. One by one, the curious bride, professing her abiding love and deep need to know, begs the reluctant bridegroom to throw those doors open and cast a little light on things (his psyche, for instance).

We progress with them from torture chamber through armory, treasury, eerie garden and silvery pool (which -- hint, hint -- is not filled with your garden-variety lake water) to a final door behind which lies Bluebeard's last and most shocking secret. Suffice it to say Judith will have her regrets in the morning -- if there is a morning.

This one-hour work, based on a French literary folk tale from the late 17th century as recast by Hungarian poet Bela Balazs, is Bartok's only opera, considered by many to be one of his finest early masterworks. It is not frequently performed as a full-on opera -- its rampant chromaticism and the rapid rhythmic patterns of the Hungarian libretto make a conventional staging challenging. But Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will unveil a semi-staged performance of it at Davies Hall in their June 21-23 concert set, starring mezzo-soprano (and frequent Symphony collaborator) Michelle DeYoung and bass-baritone Alan Held.


Advertisement

This new production, which Tilson Thomas gave its U.S. premiere two months ago with his New World Symphony in Miami, is directed by Nick Hillel, the London filmmaker, video artist and creative director of Yeast Culture who has done videos and projections for both Cirque du Soleil and the Beastie Boys, among many others. Hillel rejected the idea of a towering screen that would divide concertgoers' attention between images and live performers, opting instead for a set of shifting and unfurling shapes that, by grace of sophisticated projection-mapping software, will throw different visuals on different areas of the set at the same time. In a message for concertgoers posted on the Symphony website, Hillel explains: "We wanted the visuals to embody the essence of the music and motif of each room without, necessarily, resorting to literal representations, with each open door revealing elements evoking the feelings of the narrative."

That narrative, by the way, will come at us in the original Hungarian, with projected subtitles in English. I've read the libretto -- and it's a chiller.

The concerts will open with another piece bright with promise: the daring and dazzlingly gifted pianist Jeremy Denk is the soloist for the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major. Denk, last heard here in March playing the Cowell Piano Concerto during the Symphony's American Mavericks Festival, is not only a prodigious talent at the keyboard, but he is also a highly entertaining writer whose posts on his "think denk" blog frequently manage to be simultaneously erudite and hilarious.

The double bill is intriguing enough, but the June 22 concert has an additional plum attached. After the concert, there will be a Davies After Hours cocktail lounge performance in the second tier lobby of the hall, featuring musician-songwriter John Vanderslice and the Bay Area's Magik*Magik Orchestra, responding in their unique musical ways to the evening's previous programming. Ticketholders will be admitted free.

Details: 8 p.m. June 21-23; 201 Van Ness, San Francisco; $35-$145; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org.

ANOTHER SHINY BAUBLE: The American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers handed the San Francisco Symphony its 18th ASCAP Award for adventurous programming at the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras last week in Dallas. The Symphony received the Morton Gould Award for innovative programming in recognition of its entire centennial year schedule, which included the above-mentioned American Mavericks Festival and its world premieres of works by John Adams, Mason Bates, Meredith Monk and Morton Subotnick. The season has also included contemporary works by Charles Ives, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman. The San Francisco Youth Symphony was also among the 24 awardees this year, winning its first ASCAP Award for American programming on foreign tours.

Contact Sue Gilmore at sgilmore@bayareanewsgroup.com.