Presenting Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” is a significant undertaking for an orchestra – or an opera company, for that matter. An almost unremittingly dark, psychological tale, based on a modern reworking of an old folk story, it is dramatically static by operatic standards, although its emotional heft makes up for its lack of action: Bluebeard, a wealthy warlord, and Judith, his overly curious new wife, visit Bluebeard’s dark, chilly castle for the first time, whereupon Judith demands the keys to the castle’s seven mysterious, locked doors.

The work demands two singers who can bring their characters’ peculiar confidence to the terrifying imagery in Béla Balázs’ libretto, and who have the power to project clearly through Bartók’s hefty orchestration. It requires ample flexibility from the orchestra, which is virtually a full-fledged character, standing in for the castle itself, in Bartók’s rendering of the story.

Robert Moody led the Portland Symphony Orchestra, with mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Judith, and bass-baritone Alan Held as Bluebeard, in a vivid, semi-staged performance of the hour-long opera on Tuesday evening at Merrill Auditorium.

Given my complaints about the orchestra’s unfortunate over-reliance on semi-classical programming, fairness demands that I acknowledge Moody’s bravery in devoting most of an evening to this decidedly non-cheerful, pointedly dissonant modern classic.

Not that “Bluebeard” is wild-eyed modernism by 2016 standards. It was composed more than a century ago, in 1911 – two years before Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” – and its dissonances are used so pictorially here that it’s hard to imagine many listeners finding them challenging.

Still, the score’s technical challenges, and the suppleness with which Moody and his players met them, should not be overlooked. As Judith opens each of the doors, Bartók has the orchestra provide sonic evocations of Judith’s first glimpses.

Some are dour – for example, the torture chamber and the armory (not unusual accoutrements in a medieval castle) behind the first two doors, are depicted with tense, tremolando strings. Others are floods of orchestral light. The gold and jewels in Bluebeard’s treasury are suggested by shimmering woodwinds, and the richness of Bluebeard’s kingdom is conveyed in a burst of bright C major scoring for organ, brass and percussion.

Bartók reconfigures each of these scoring details as Judith looks more closely. The high strings and winds, with which he drew the clear lake behind the sixth door, take on icy hues when Bluebeard tells Judith that the lake is filled with tears, and when she notices that the images behind most of the other doors are soaked in blood, Bartók’s harmonies are drained of warmth, as dissonances take over. Yet those dissonances are never overwhelming: Judith’s resolve always resurfaces, in straightforward stretches of almost Mahler-like Romanticism.

DeYoung and Held gave commanding, nuanced performances, singing in Hungarian with projected supertitles and moving comfortably through a small area at the front of the stage, the only prop being a leather chair. DeYoung, in fine voice, captured Judith’s sense of wonder as well as her willfulness, and kept the character on a steady keel until, upon opening the seventh door, she finds Bluebeard’s three former wives. Even then, DeYoung maintained Judith’s dignified resistance to fear, letting it crumble gradually as it dawns on her that she will be entombed alive, with the others.

Bartók endowed Bluebeard’s music with less fluidity than Judith’s, but it is by no means bereft of emotion. Held’s assured portrayal focused on Bluebeard’s desire to save Judith from her fate, tempered by the clear realization that he would not succeed. His Bluebeard was a reluctant monster, but a monster nonetheless.

Finding a companion piece for the hour-long “Bluebeard” is a challenge, and Moody opted to open the program with something from an entirely different universe – Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor (BWV 1043). Amy Sims, the orchestra’s assistant concertmaster, and Sasha Callahan, its assistant principal second violin, gave graceful, closely matched accounts of the twin solo lines, with Moody presiding over a reduced string complement in an appealingly driven performance.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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