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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú Herceg Vára), Op. 11/Sz 48 (1911/18)  
Duke Bluebeard – Gustáv Beláček (bass)
Judith – Andrea Meláth (mezzo)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 17-18 May 2007, Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK. No libretto provided
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS 8.660928 [57:45] 

Judith’s scream at the opening of the fifth door in Bluebeard must be among the most chilling moments in all opera. But then – at one level – Béla Balázs’s libretto is all about a wife discovering her husband’s hidden violence. It’s also a remarkably compact work that responds well to different interpretations. The classic Kertész recording with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry is gripping from start to finish (remastered on Decca Legends 466 3772), but for me the Haitink disc with with Anne Sofie von Otter and John Tomlinson remains the benchmark. Vividly recorded and gloriously sung it is also unerringly paced (EMI 56162).
So how does Alsop’s Bournemouth performance stack up? Surprisingly well, as it happens, but those who prefer their Bartók red in tooth and claw may find this recording a little tame. Persevere, though, because although Alsop’s reading sounds more intimate and chamber-like than usual it has a compelling dramatic logic that holds your attention all the way through.
The Bournemouth band play well for Alsop who is bound to be missed in Poole, now that she’s taken up her post in Baltimore. The somewhat recessed soundstage suits the conductor’s more low-key approach to the score. That said the C major chords for full orchestra and the fortissimo organ entry at the fifth door are thrillingly caught, though for sheer tingle the EMI recording is hard to beat.
The singing is similarly deceptive. Andrea Meláth’s Judith sounds much more girlish and vulnerable than usual but she clearly understands this role and sings it with a pleasing, secure tone. Even the vocal demands of the infamous fifth door hold no terrors for her. While the Slovak bass Gustáv Beláček is perhaps less commanding than Tomlinson one could argue that his outward charm makes Judith’s wifely compliance – ‘I’ll warm the cold stone ... I’ll warm it with my body’ – that much easier to understand.
Bartók’s colourful but unnerving orchestration sounds a little veiled when compared with the more lucid EMI recording, where the Berliner Philharmoniker bring out – or should one say wring out – every last detail of the score. Predictably all those Bartókian touches – the solo trumpet and woodwind trills at the Armoury (door two) and the harp glissandi, tremolo strings and solo horn that reveal the Garden behind door four – are superbly realised. The real surprise for me is that Haitink, not normally a conductor I warm to, has a solid grasp of the work’s dramatic structure and conveys a growing sense of unease that Alsop, for all her strengths, can’t quite match.
It all comes down to a difference of emphasis, really, but such is the score’s hypnotic power that it rarely fails to entrance the listener. Naxos have produced a robust and intelligent Bluebeard that is well worth hearing, not least for its idiomatic singing. The recording is commendably warm and atmospheric, even if it lacks that last ounce of immediacy. Regrettably there is no libretto either with the disc or online, which may be a drawback for those who don’t know the opera. That said a basic synopsis and background notes are included and the disc is generously cued.
Whether you’re new to Bluebeard or you already have the Kertész and/or the Haitink this outwardly rather restrained performance burns with a slow, steady flame that is impossible to ignore. A fitting climax to Alsop’s tenure with the BSO and an absolute bargain to boot.
Dan Morgan


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