Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle [63:00]
Duke Bluebeard - Robert Lloyd (bass)
Judith - Elizabeth Laurence (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Adam Fischer
rec. 1988
NVC ARTS 505186705222 DVD [63:00]
This video-to-DVD transfer of Bartók’s early operatic masterpiece might be more than 20 years old, but it still has a lot to teach contemporary opera producers and directors. Its dramatic punch and visual variety make it compulsive viewing, while its straightforward theatrical interpretation makes a refreshing change from some of the wackier productions that have made their way into opera houses in recent years.
There are faults. The original BBC Television film is a little grainy, and lapses between the recorded soundtrack and lip-syncing can be off-putting. The DVD itself carries no extra material about the opera, its performers, or the film project. Even the sleeve-notes give no more than a brief summary of the plot - not especially essential, given the subtitles that are available. And surely the evocative spoken prologue - delivered in English by actor John Woodvine - would have been better in the original Magyar.
But these are minor quibbles. What really stands out is the quality of the performance. Robert Lloyd is a commanding Bluebeard - warm and even pitiful at the opening, but gradually hardening into a more complex and chilling personality. Elizabeth Laurence looks a little old for the part of the stolen virgin bride - noticeably in close-ups - but her singing and acting skills more than make up for this. Vocally and theatrically she develops from a naïve, if rather guileful, lover through to increasing assertiveness towards her final tragic downfall. The diction of each singer is exceptionally good, and the London Philharmonic under Adam Fischer capture the colour and expressiveness of Bartók’s score. Indeed, the soundtrack alone would make an excellent buy.
There are also many interesting theatrical touches. The setting is a standard Gothic castle with pre-1914 costumes. Unlike many modern productions, we do see what lies behind each of the seven doors. Only the first - the torture chamber - disappoints, with what looks like a disused public steam bath, although the blood seeping from the tiles is a nice touch.
Watch out for those brief, symbolic moments - Judith’s discovery of the wet castle walls reflected in Bluebeard’s own silent tears; the various appearances of blood or hints at violence through lighting; the way Bluebeard throws Judith the sixth key instead of handing it to her as before. There is a palpable sense of impending horror during the conflict between Bluebeard and Judith prior to the opening of the seventh and final door. And the appearance of the three previous wives, together with Judith’s ultimate incarceration, is (without wishing to give too much away) a genuinely satisfying and disturbing climax.
John-Pierre Joyce
Dramatic punch and visual variety make this compulsive viewing.