Opera does not
seem to have been one of Bartók’s primary concerns; he only
wrote three works for the stage and two of those were ballets.
Librettist Bela Balazs wrote the text of Duke Bluebeard’s
Castle as a speculative venture, hoping that either Kodály
or Bartók would set it. Balazs’s intention was to use the
poetic forms in Transylvanian folk-songs but to create a significant
modern work in the same way that both Kodály and Bartók were
creating contemporary music inspired by their folk-song collecting.
In the liner-notes
to this new release, Paul Griffiths tells us that the drama
is almost exclusively told in trochaic tetrameters (lines
such as “Coming, coming, dearest Bluebeard”). It is Bartók’s
setting of this regular, folk-ballad like text which gives
the work both its distinctive flavour and particular difficulty.
This difficulty is compounded by Bartók’s brilliant use of
the large orchestra; the orchestra is the third person in
this drama and singers must be able to rise over it but also
to converse with each other in a way that conveys the drama.
must build the drama in the orchestra, providing a black-edged
glitter to the textures, but remain sympathetic to the singers
and the dramatic shape of the work. It is too easy for the
work to turn into a brilliant tone poem with voices where
characterisation and intense interplay between characters
On this recording,
taken from a BBC Proms performance in 2004, conductor Jukka-Pekka
Saraste has a sure feel for the Bartók piece but I felt that
he considered it more from an orchestral point of view than
as a piece of stage drama. He certainly builds tension and
the conclusion is shattering, but the dramatic interplay between
the characters is somehow wanting. Saraste’s way with the
score rather emphasises the advanced nature of Bartók’s music.
It does not have the lyric beauty which other conductors bring
out. Saraste and the BBC Symphony Orchestra give us a very
modern take and a very modern, psychological tale.
Bluebeard is wonderfully world-weary. His voice is noticeably
grainier than on some of his other more recent recordings,
so some of this weariness might simply be the effort of projecting
his huge bass voice into the Royal Albert Hall. As it is,
his dramatic gestures are not always accompanied by the best
vocal support. Tomlinson has made a number of other recordings
in this role (Rob Cowan, reviewing this disc in The Gramophone
recommended Tomlinson’s live recording with James Levine and
the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra).
As Judith, Jeanne-Michelle
Charbonnet is lighter-voiced and less intense than her counterparts
in some other readings. In her review of the original concert
in The Times, Hilary Finch said that Charbonnet replaced an
ailing Ildiko Komlosi at short notice, but nothing is said
of this in the CD notes. Charbonnet’s biography would seem
to place her in the dramatic soprano rather than mezzo-soprano
fach and this fact obviously colours her interpretation as
she does not have the unlimited dark chest register that some
of her mezzo and contralto colleagues have. (I still treasure
my recording from the 1980s with Elena Obratzsova as Judith).
Perhaps it is this which contributes to another aspect of
this performance which does not appeal to me; the tendency
to give too much too early so that there is nowhere else to
go for the big climactic moments.
The opera is performed
here complete with its spoken prologue, which Matyas Sarkozi
intones beautifully. The singers both have very creditable
Hungarian, but neither sounds quite as if they are singing
in a language that they understand. If I can’t have a native
speaker in this repertoire, then I often prefer to hear it
in translation rather than in the original conned by rote.
The CD is handsomely
produced in a substantial box with booklet which includes
a fine essay by Paul Griffiths and the complete libretto.
This is a fine
record of a brilliant occasion; it is not a library recommendation
but many people will treasure it either as a memento of a
particular Prom or as a record of a fine performance as Bluebeard