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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11 (1911-12)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass) – Bluebeard; Michelle DeYoung (mezzo) – Judith; Juliet Stephenson (narrator)
Philharmonia Voices; Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live, 8 November 2011, Konzerthaus, Vienna. DDD
Hungarian text and English translation included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD372 [66:42]

In 2011 Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia gave a year-long series of concerts under the title Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók. Right at the end they performed his only opera, the one-act work, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. This recording was made at a concert in Vienna two nights after the same forces had performed it in London. Jim Pritchard reviewed the London performance for Seen and Heard and when I discovered his review it answered one question that I had: was the performance a concert version or was it staged in any way? Jim tells us that in London the opera was semi-staged and describes how it was done. Whether the same semi-staging was undertaken in Vienna I don’t know but it must be likely.
 
It seems a little odd that the opera was given in Hungarian to an Austrian audience but with the Prologue spoken in English. Presumably it made sense to transfer the London performance lock, stock and barrel to Vienna. In any case, the Prologue is only short, after which Juliet Stevenson could sit back and experience the performance with the rest of us.
 
It’s a daunting task for just two singers to sustain a drama that is as intense as this yet which has relatively little by way of ‘action’, apart from the physical act of opening the various doors. In fact, in this respect it’s an opera that’s particularly suited to experiencing through a recording – or the radio. Here the two principal singers engage our attention from the word go and never relax their hold over the audience.
 
Once or twice in the past I’ve felt that Michelle DeYoung’s singing was a bit too rich in vibrato. Here the vibrato is just as evident. However, I was much less bothered by it and I suspect there are two reasons for this. Firstly, it seemed more appropriate to the music she’s singing. Secondly, Hungarian is a difficult language for non-speakers to comprehend anyway so I wasn’t as aware as I have been in the past of vibrato clouding the diction. I think this is a pretty impressive portrayal of Judith. Miss DeYoung takes us through the range of emotions that Judith experiences, starting off as an impressionable young bride, eager to please her new husband and to be châtelaine of his castle. We move with her through insatiable curiosity to her appalled fascination at the sights of the torture chamber and armoury. Then comes her rapture at the sight of the flowers that lie behind the fourth door. She sounds properly overawed, even cowed, by the vista of Bluebeard’s kingdom as it’s revealed behind the fifth door but then her insistence on opening the last two doors seals her fate. Judith clearly has at least an inkling of what lies behind the seventh door before she opens it but a dread fascination draws her on. Michelle DeYoung seems to me to covey these various emotions successfully and she is on top of the vocal and histrionic demands of the role. I found her portrayal convincing.
 
Sir John Tomlinson is a veteran of this role. One is aware that his voice is now past its prime. In particular, one senses that he has to work hard in the upper reaches of his instrument. So, for example, some of the notes are more than a little spread as he reveals his kingdom with the fifth door thrown open – he has to push the tone quite a lot. What he lacks in vocal conditioning at such a juncture is more than compensated by his ability as a vocal actor. At this point in the score he’s imperious as he surveys his kingdom. Earlier on he is a baleful, imposing figure in the early scenes and in the closing moments of the opera he conveys the essential tragedy of Bluebeard’s condition. This is a riveting portrayal.
 
The opera has a third protagonist: the orchestra. Bartók’s scoring is consistently inventive and provocative and the orchestra colours in so much of the scene for us that the audio listener almost has no need of a visual production. Fortunately the Philharmonia is on magnificent form. Their warm playing etches in the garden scene superbly and the swirls of chill colours when the Lake of Tears is revealed contribute hugely to the sense of suspense and foreboding that the listener experiences at this point. Earlier the orchestral sound at the opening of the fifth door is both magnificent and majestic. This is a fabulous account of the orchestral score and the engineers capture it very well, balancing the orchestra against the two soloists very satisfactorily.
 
I suspect that besides the collective and individual excellence of the members of the Philharmonia two other factors lie behind their superb playing of this score. One is that they had had so much exposure to Bartók’s music in the preceding months that his style and sonorities had become almost second nature to them. The second is the presence on the podium of Esa-Pekka Salonen. He’s renowned for his prowess in twentieth-century music and not least for his acute and fastidious ear. He controls and balances the colours and every other detail of the orchestral score superbly. More than that, however, one has the sense that he is in complete command of the dramatic sweep of the score, seeing it as one continuous arch from the quiet gloom of the start to the return to that state at the end with every detail and event during that span properly placed for maximum effect.
 
This, then, is a fine account of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The recording captures the performance very well indeed and though it’s a live performance the audience are as quiet as mice: there’s no applause to break the gloom at the end. The booklet contains a useful note by Malcolm Gillies as well as Béla Balázs’ full libretto and an English translation, including all the stage directions which are essential to understanding what’s going on.
 
John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan