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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11/Sz48 (1911/1918)
Juliet Stevenson (narrator)
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
Philharmonia Voices 
Philharmonia Orchestra/ Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live, 8 November 2011, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Libretto included (Hungarian/English)
SIGNUM SIGCD372 [66:42]

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 (review).
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 performance.
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 treasure room.
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 too.
Dan Morgan