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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Bluebeard’s Castle - Opera in One Act, Op 11 / BB 62 (1911, rev 1912, 1917-18)
Libretto by Béla Balázs
Mika Kares (bass, Duke Bluebeard)
Szilvia Vörös (mezzo, Judit)
Géza Szilvay (Narrator)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki
rec. public performances and additional sessions in Jan 2020 at Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
Hungarian text and English translation included
Reviewed as a digital download with pdf booklet from
BIS-2388 SACD [59:54]

After over a century, it has become a truism that this one-act masterpiece focusing on the nature of human experience, love and partnership, and the relentless thirst for knowledge is now recognised as a ground-breaking “opera of the mind”. The compelling journey of questions-and-answers and door-opening revelations explored by its six performance ‘participants’ in a single hour consistently belies its brevity.

A brief, but essential introductory hook is delivered by an anonymous narrator, followed by an extended vocal dialogue between Duke Bluebeard and his fourth wife Judit cast as Everyman and Everywoman. The minimal stage action and all-important sequence of behind closed-door scenarios are depicted with an ear-tingling energy of mood, movement and timbre by the orchestra. Only in their final dialogue do the two main characters briefly engage together in duet, but by then it’s too late for Judit as she joins Bluebeard’s three silent, but still ‘living’ previous wives.

All the questions are answered with the return of oblivion and total darkness, or are they? What of a potential seventh ‘participant’ – the recurrent strange reverberating sigh that Bartók specifically asks for in his score? It seems to emanate from the walls and corridors of the castle itself, but eventually falls silent as Judit acquires more keys to the doors and answers to her questions. Could this be the warning chorus of the three previous wives, coincidentally behind the seventh sealed door, or something else?

Any performance of the opera stands or falls by the quality of the vernacular enunciation and understanding of the text delivered by the two main protagonists. As with other contemporary vocal works, particularly those of Janáček, Debussy, and the Sprechstimme works of the Second Viennese School, Bartok’s lyrical tailoring of the rhythmic and accented inflexion of spoken Hungarian has to sound assuredly authentic throughout. No amount of grand guignol from Bluebeard or vampish hectoring from Judit can compensate.

Szilvia Vörös and the narrator Géza Szilvay are both to the manner born. The Finn Mika Kares as Bluebeard clearly worked with a superb language coach for the performances from which this live recording is taken. He savours the text as a natural, delivering the slow release of information to Judit with masterly control and insinuation. Within the overall dramatic context of the role, however, he’s not always so convincing at conveying the underlying ambivalence of his character’s growing frustration with Judit’s persistent and increasingly obsessive questioning. But as the last door reveals his previous wives, his description of each of them is supremely eloquent and moving – full of ardour, pain and regret. The sadness of his closing eulogy resounds with a sense of loss that seems to bear the weight of the world’s sorrows upon his shoulders. This is thrown into even starker relief by the avoidance of hysteria from Szilvia Vörös’ Judit. Despite ever-growing insistence, her composure retains vulnerability and doubt even as she succumbs to being unsettled, then very afraid and finally terrified as the realisation dawns that she is irretrievably out of her depth with Bluebeard and about to become another ‘living’ part of history.

The other main contributor is the orchestra, with Susanna Mälkki coaxing playing of liquid gold to support her singers. The phrasing and interaction of the wind section, especially the solo clarinet, oboe, and horn, are consistently voiced with a subtlety of nuance and colour to match that of the singers. Every facet of the imagery beyond each door is conjured with a palpable and kaleidoscopic sense of detail, magic and wonder.

Come the opening of the fifth door onto the vistas of Bluebeard’s realm, some may find the full organ-supported added trumpets and trombones not quite as telling as in other recordings. Cannily, however, Mälkki keeps her powder dry for the two huge climaxes that bookend the opening and closing of the seventh and last door. Here, the trombone section’s delivery of Judit to her fate, and by implication Bluebeard to his, is as implacable and overwhelming as I’ve ever heard – the dynamic range of the sound readily capturing the full impact and slow-motion breaking wave effect of the music with spectacular clarity and depth of perspective. All light is extinguished, leaving Bluebeard alone in total darkness and silence to contemplate oblivion, or perhaps the arrival of another potential wife …

There are many magnificent recordings of the work, most notably those conducted by the Hungarians Antal Doráti (Presto special Mercury CD, or download 4343252), János Ferencsik (Hungaroton HCD11486 or HCD11001 or HCD12254, with different soloists – see Ralph Moore’s 2018 Survey), and Iván Fischer (Channel Classics/Philips, now Decca 4706332, download only: Recording of the Month – review). But no matter how many alternatives you have, Susanna Mälkki’s performance brings special qualities in abundance and is not to be missed.

Ian Julier

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Ralph Moore

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