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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú Herceg Vára), Op. 11/Sz 48 (1911/18)  
Duke Bluebeard – Kolos Kováts (bass)
Judith – Sylvia Sass (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Director: Miklós Szinetár
Picture: 4:3/NTSC/Region 0
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1/LPCM stereo
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese. Only Prologue text included
rec. 1981, DVD release 2008
DECCA 0743254 [56:00]
Experience Classicsonline

First things first. This is a 1981 Unitel studio performance, the singers lip-synching to Decca’s audio recording with Solti and the LPO (nla). These hybrids are far from ideal, as I discovered with Rolf Liebermann’s Orpheus in der Unterwelt (see review). That 1960s performance is frankly risible at times and the mono soundtrack is very disappointing. Thankfully this Bluebeard is much more compelling, both musically and dramatically.

In the 1970s Hungarian-born soprano Sylvia Sass was touted as the next Callas but after some promising recitals, recordings and stage performances she dropped out of sight. The similarities with Callas – according to those who saw Sass perform – are striking. She certainly has a dramatic intensity that recalls Callas at her smouldering best but, alas, she also has the latter’s wayward voice. I recently sampled Sass’s Hungaroton disc of Strauss lieder and found her occluded tone and general unsteadiness very distressing.

Fortunately the Bluebeard audio recording with Solti dates from her earlier career, so she is in much better voice. Not having seen her perform I was curious as to whether the comparisons with Callas were accurate or just wishful thinking. After all there have been many pretenders to the throne – remember Magda Oliviero and Elena Souliotis – and they didn’t last very long either.

This production, designed by Gábor Bachmann and directed by Miklós Szinetár, first appeared on VHS, so picture quality could be a problem. As for the soundtrack Decca have wisely chosen to retain the PCM stereo option, which experience suggests is more dynamic and involving than compressed audio formats. For those who have the multi-channel kit there is always Dolby Surround, although I have yet to be convinced this is worth the outlay.

The action begins at the vaguely cloacal entrance to the castle and proceeds into a dark and claustrophobic interior space. It really does seem as if the characters are being drawn into a literal and metaphorical darkness, ‘solemn, solemn, joyless Bluebeard’ glowering at his frightened bride as they enter.

Sass has real presence, her high cheekbones, long, dark tresses and flowing robes strangely druidic against the surrounding stone. As she ventures over the ‘icy threshold’ her eyes dart left and right, in a convincing show of uncertainty and fear. The Hungarian bass Kolos Kováts isn’t particularly menacing – except in a comic-book villain sort of way – but at least he has a pleasingly dark voice.

The splendid Decca audio track is vivid and thrustful but the lip-synching is a bit of a distraction; Kováts seems to handle it better than Sass but such is the power of the piece that it soon ceases to be a problem. The camerawork – mainly close-ups and medium close-ups – is suitably oppressive, and when Judith presses herself against the first black door it is as if she is embracing darkness itself.

This first room – the torture chamber – throws out a deep red light, so as Judith recoils she appears to be drenched in blood. In the second chamber – the armoury – the spears and other weapons are all tipped with blood, and in the third – the treasury – there is a subtle change of light as Judith discovers the jewels are bleeding too. And all is not what it seems in the secret garden – the fourth chamber – where the flowers have all the charm of a funeral wreath.

There’s a dark sexual undercurrent to this opera and it’s underscored in this production; each time Judith opens a door it seems to give Bluebeard an erotic thrill. In the secret garden he can barely contain himself as he grasps Judith’s hands in his, just as the carnations begin to bleed. It’s an extraordinary moment and very adroitly done.

Of course it’s the fifth door – Bluebeard’s vast kingdom – that elicits those crushing organ chords and Judith’s scream of awe and disbelief. She is subsumed by white light, Bluebeard revolving slowly in silhouette against the brightness. For the first time one feels the visuals are a little contrived. Fortunately it’s only a temporary lapse and the sixth chamber – the bright, still waters – is really quite chilling. Bluebeard is framed in the ornate Gothic doorway with its carved transom and beckons to Judith as if calling her in from the light.

Judith plays the coquette as she embraces Bluebeard and asks him who he has loved before her. Sass is so alluring it’s hard to see how the duke could resist. And of course he can’t. Sass has some very obvious lip-synch problems on her high notes as she demands Bluebeard open the seventh door. At that point he seems to become one with the surrounding darkness, leaving us in no doubt as to Judith’s fate.

In the final chamber, a stylised mausoleum, Bluebeard’s former wives emerge from the lighted mist and we cut to Judith weighed down with a tall, heavy crown as she moves slowly to join them. Muttering ‘darkness, darkness’ the duke disappears into the rain-slashed gloom. It may sound a tad portentous on paper but in practise this all works very well indeed.

If you don’t mind the miming and the slightly dated camerawork and sets this Bluebeard is as gripping as it gets. Admittedly some of the visual conceits work better than others and although Sass is a fairly convincing actress her voice sounds pinched under pressure. Kováts is perhaps a little under-characterised, but vocally he’s steady enough.

Picture quality isn’t up to current standards – it has the soft, grainy look of VHS at times – and there aren’t any ‘extras’ either. That said the sound is very good indeed, full of detail and bite without ever sounding strident. The disc is well cued and the menus are elegant and easy to navigate – rivals please note. The subtitles are very crisp and clear.

Dan Morgan


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