Thanks to librettist Béla Balázs Bartók’s
realisation of Charles Perrault’s La Barbe bleue
has a strong, well-constructed platform on which to build. It certainly
contains some of the composer’s most striking and colourful
music, as Bernard Haitink’s glorious recording with Ann Sofie
von Otter and Sir John Tomlinson so amply demonstrates (EMI/Warner).
The playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker is peerless, the singing
is splendid and the music has a darkly obsessive cast that I’ve
rarely encountered on record or in the theatre.
For many years the legendary István Kertész account
with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry was the version to have; indeed,
it sounds as fresh and vivid as ever in its Decca Legends incarnation,
although a re-mastered Blu-ray Audio release would be most welcome.
Among my clutch of comparative versions is the Iván Fischer
on Philips/Channel Classics, which doesn’t strike me as one
of that conductor’s best efforts; sonically impressive it’s
also undermined by his Judith, Ildiko Komlósi, who is overstretched
too much of the time. No qualms about Marin Alsop’s Bournemouth
account which, although less immediate than some, sustains a subtle
and compelling narrative that suits this interior drama very well
For those who want Bluebeard on video soprano Sylvia Sass
and bass Kolos Kováts make an eye-catching pair in Miklós
Szinetár’s imaginative production (review).
The downside is that they mime to their 1981 audio recording with
Sir Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic. Clad in flowing white
Sass certainly looks the part – innocent, virginal – and
she’s a tolerable actor; alas, her poor lip-synching is a big
drawback. Kováts, whose goading, high-collared presence is
su[remely unsettling, is rather more accomplished in this respect;
still, this isn’t a frontrunner, even as a CD, especially since
Sass’s occluded tone gets in the way of her otherwise decent
Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Bluebeard, recorded live, is prefaced
by Juliet Stevenson’s nicely distanced but curiously deadpan
prologue. Just sample the more theatrical – and sinister - Sandor
Elès for Haitink. The music that steals in thereafter is also
rather subdued, and Bartók’s colour palette isn’t
nearly as subtle or as varied in Vienna as it is in Berlin. I don’t
much care for Michelle DeYoung either, as she lacks the vocal reach
or dramatic calibration of her best rivals. As for Sir John Tomlinson
he’s not the secure, mesmerising Bluebeard he was for Haitink
in 1996; his incipient vibrato then is much more disfiguring now.
Thankfully Salonen turns up the wick at the First Door, but DeYoung
is strained here and in Bartók’s ever-mounting climaxes.
By contrast von Otter is confident across the range; now vulnerable,
now coquettish, but always alive to the music’s dramatic shifts
she’s one of the finest Judiths I've ever heard. Alongside Haitink’s
big, bold reading Salonen’s is undercharacterised. That said,
he’s undeniably exciting at the opera’s nodal points;
the first glimpse of Bluebeard’s torture chamber is suitably
unnerving, and there’s some fine playing both here and in the
In terms of sound EMI excelled themselves for Haitink; indeed, it’s
one of their finest efforts, period, so anything else is apt to pale
in comparison. Signum’s sonics aren’t in the same league
– even allowing for the fact that it’s a live recording
- although the combined organ and orchestra at the Fifth Door do pack
a terrific punch. Alas, the vocal strain really shows here; DeYoung
is terribly pinched and Tomlinson’s wobble is worse than ever.
Even more frustrating, Salonen allows all that pent-up energy to dissipate
much too soon.
If that weren’t enough I don’t detect the emotional/psychological
tussle between Tomlinson and DeYoung that I do between him and von
Otter and, especially, between Ludwig and Berry. This is a cruel,
voyeuristic tale that surely demands a strong sense of theatre, of
powerful contrasts and searing tensions; frankly you’d never
guess it with Salonen. Whether it’s just instinct or the product
of many years in the opera house Haitink paces, builds and projects
this music better than anyone I’know; it helps that the Berliners
are in blistering form and his singers are in splendid voice.
Salonen’s Bluebeard burns with all too low a flame;
not only that, it’s apt to flicker and fade just when it needs
to flare once more. His overwhelmed soloists are even more of a let-down
and the recording, while adequate, is not that involving either. To
be fair, this Signum issue never stood a chance in such exalted company;
as a live event it may have been rather special, but it’s certainly
not a recording I’d want to hear again. The decent liner-notes
and libretto are very welcome, though.
Bursts of brilliance, but otherwise bland; disappointing soloists