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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle Op 11 BB 62 (1911, revised 1912-18
Bluebeard: Mika Kares (bass)
Judit: Szilvia Vörös (mezzo-soprano)
Narrator: Géza Szilvay
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki
rec. live with additional sessions January 2020, Helsinki Music Centre
Hungarian libretto with English translation
BIS BIS2388 SACD [60:30]

Given that Finnish is cognate with Hungarian in linguistic origin, there is every good reason for Finns to perform and record this Hungarian operatic masterpiece in its original language – albeit with a native mezzo-soprano singing the role of Judit. As someone with close Finnish family connections, I also dare to suggest that there is some temperamental affinity between the two cultures which will enhance the performers’ identification with this grim and fascinating fable - we are not too far from the fatalistic, tragedy-laden world of Kullervo and the Kalevala.

I can never get enough of this most compact and atmospheric of operas, so jumped at the chance of reviewing a brand-new issue derived from live performances patched with recording sessions. I was pleased to see that the booklet, slipped inside a slim cardboard casing, includes, in addition to the notes and photos, a full Hungarian text with an English translation – essential to the appreciation of the action. Another great bonus is the inclusion of the chilling, enigmatic Prologue from the poem by Béla Balázs, hauntingly intoned by narrator Géza Szilvay, as the music creeps in. My joy is on the road to completion when I hear the deep, resonant tones of Finnish bass Mika Kares and the full, vibrant mezzo-soprano of Szilvia Vörös. We can also immediately hear the beauty of the recorded sound, the clarity of the orchestral playing and the firm grip of conductor Susanna Mälkki over Bartók’s pulsing, sinuous rhythms.

So what could go wrong? Nothing, it seems, until Vörös’ first, held top G on “Kékszákállú” (Bluebeard) which wobbles distressingly. Every subsequent top note then exhibits the same, egregious, technical flaw. The famous “Fifth Door” top C is predictably unsteady, sharp and curtailed, so the grandest moment in opera falls short. I don’t care if, as the notes tell us, Vörös has been the winner of numerous prizes and is now an international artist, no great or even good singer exhibits this fault – except for Callas during the less secure stages of her career, but even she heeded Legge’s warnings and mostly addressed the issue. I’m sorry but this brings out the ranter in me and I start to resemble the disturbing photograph of the composer on page 49 of the booklet in which he glares at some unseen object with wild, staring eyes: how is it possible to get everything so right then fatally counter all that first-rate preparation by engaging a singer whose voice is so compromised by this failing? It might be argued that I am complaining about only a few top notes above F but they all come as part of grand climaxes and need to be clean, steely and properly pulsed in the manner we hear from the great exponents of Judit such as Ludwig, Norman and Troyanos if their full dramatic effect is to be realised.

My frustration is compounded by the fact that so much apart from the Great Wobble is ideal. Some passages in Bluebeard’s music seem to lie a bit high for Kares and his timbre turns dry, but otherwise so much else is pleasing, including the sonority of the orchestral playing, the baleful intensity of his warnings to Judit, and, especially, the eery, sighing sound effects. I have to say, however, that when this Judit whispers “Élnek, élnek” (They live, they live) when she discovers that Bluebeard’s three former wives are alive, she does not sound all that “astounded and horrified” but the orchestral accompaniment to Bluebeard’s last words, “Éjjel…éjjel…” (Darkness…darkness…), is riveting.

I refer you to the survey I posted in 2018 for background and my prime recommendations. This recording would have been worthy to join those had it not been for the flaw in the singing.

Ralph Moore

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