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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911)
Bluebeard – John Tomlinson (bass-baritone)
Judith – Jeanne Michelle Charbonnet (soprano)
Prologue – Matyas Sarkozi
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Recorded Live at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 7 September 2004
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61953-2 [60.08]




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.

The conductor 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 is lost.

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.

John Tomlinson’s 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 by Tomlinson.

Robert Hugill



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