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Bela BARTOK (1881-1945)
Bluebeard’s Castle (1911, sung in English)
Sally Burgess (mezzo) - Judith; John Tomlinson (bass) – Bluebeard
Orchestra of Opera North/Richard Farnes.
rec. Leeds Town Hall, 5-6 June 2005. DDD
Translated text (English only) included.
CHANDOS CHAN3133 [63:07] 

Experience Classicsonline

This Chandos version of Bluebeard includes the spoken Prologue which, although mainly unaccompanied and eerily bare, strongly put me in mind of the Prologue from Berg’s Lulu. The decision to include it is a strong one, for the music does indeed begin at the line “The music begins”, creeping in like a shadow.

As Bluebeard, John Tomlinson sings with huge authority, bringing his long experience always to bear. There is, perhaps, a slight sense of strain and loss of full tone in the higher reaches of the voice these days. This is something I commented on in a live performance of Act 3 Scene 3 of Walküre at the Barbican in 2004 with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Fischer. Here, there is some air around his phrase, “Now you see my secret garden” that is surely not borne of expressive intent. Yet he has amazing presence, even on disc. There were semi-staged performances in preparation for this recording, and it shows. 

His Judith is another experienced singer, Sally Burgess. The interaction between the two protagonists is mesmeric. Tomlinson’s question, “Frightened?” is genuinely unsettling rather than hammy. Burgess suggests, initially, a girl in love with life in her hushed, wide-eyed curiosity, one who believes that much lies in front of her. As the piece progresses, her varied emotions, from fear to eerie fascination, are tellingly tracked. Burgess’s tone can be truly beautiful also. 

The castles’ sighing is subtly done, implied rather than a full-on blast from a wind machine. Orchestral textures are frequently tellingly realised, although for the Third Door (‘Armoury’), the orchestral contribution does not quite capture the magic of the spectacle allegedly before Judith. The blazing tutti chord that announces the Fifth Door (‘Bluebeard’s Kingdom’) is captured in technicolour sound by Chandos. 

Having just heard Boulez’s performance of this with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican a few days ago, it is a great compliment to Farnes and the Chandos team that they hold their own in no uncertain terms. Boulez painted the drama more graphically, it is true, with a more acute sense of orchestral colour while concurrently retaining a greater sense of the whole and the place of the moment in the ongoing drama. Yet Farnes’s version has much going for it, not least its awareness of Bluebeard as theatre, and if you want an English Bluebeard, this will more than fit the bill. The translation itself (by John Lloyd Davies) flows perfectly well. The Orchestra of Opera North has plenty of heft when it matters, and there is also much detail here - although not presented with the clear analytical ear of a Boulez, admittedly. 

Mike Ashman writes a perceptive booklet note, tracing the history of the Bluebeard myth, while drawing parallels between it and Adam and Eve, Cupid and Psyche and even Lohengrin. An impressive release. 

Colin Clarke 





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