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(Gustave Doré, lithographie de Barbe Bleue)
05 Nov 2011

Bluebeard’s Castle, Royal Festival Hall

Bartók’s only opera, a masterpiece to rank with other sole works in the genre such as Fidelio and Pelléas et Mélisande, was chosen for the climax of the Philharmonia’s year-long series, ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’.

Claude Debussy — Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Béla Bartók — Piano Concerto no.3; éla Bartók — Bluebeard’s Castle (semi-staged)

Yefim Bronfman (piano); Judit: Michelle DeYoung; Bluebeard: Sir John Tomlinson; Juliet Stevenson (narrator). Director: Nick Hillel (director); Staging: David Edwards; Set designs: Adam Wiltshire; Lighting: David Holmes. Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday 3 November 2011.

Above: Lithograph of Bluebeard by Gustave Doré


It was the obvious and fitting choice, both as idea and reality. But first came a far from negligible opening to the concert: a visit from Debussy, albeit in still earlier guise than the composer of Pelléas, and the third of Bartók’s three piano concertos, the soloist again Yefim Bronfman.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is pretty much universally considered to mark the dawn of twentieth-century music. (The programme note by Malcom Gillies presented Debussy’s work as a candidate, but oddly claimed ‘some date it as late as 1913, with Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.’ No one would gainsay the importance of The Rite of Spring, yet, by the same token, surely no one would date the beginning of twentieth-century music after Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance.) In the hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen — he only picked up a baton later, preferring to mould the music here more freely — Prélude à l’après-midi received a fine performance. Samuel Coles’s opening flute solo was not only not conducted by Salonen; he did not even herald it, leaving Coles to begin in his own time. He did not disappoint; nor did Chris Cowie’s equally fine oboe solo work. Salonen shaped an initially languid reading, soon bathed in the warm glow of the Philharmonia strings. There was certainly a sense of the novelty of form we can all too readily take for granted, but which would point the way not only to later Debussy and to a number of works by Bartók and other composers of his generation, but even to post-war composers such as Boulez, as conductor one of Debussy’s — and Bartók’s — foremost interpreters. Flexibility of tempo proved the key that unlocked malleability of form. Finally came that undefinable, ineffable magic that marks a distinguished performance of this great work.

Such lyricism also informed the opening of the piano concerto, Bronfman presenting it as if in a single breath, foretelling an over-arching melodic approach. The tempo adopted, however, sounded slower than usual; moreover, the general style adopted was more classical, post-Mozartian even, than one often hears. Sometimes I wanted a little more fire from both soloist and orchestra in the first movement: though an interesting reading, it was ultimately a little underwhelming. The cool but not cold dignity with which Bronfman announced his opening statements in the slow movement was striking. Thereafter, the extraordinary night-music — surely the most interesting part of a concerto that does not always show Bartók at his best — was piquant and lively under Salonen. He clearly relished the colours that point back to Ravel but also look forward to Messiaen. A relatively cool classicism paid dividends with the counterpoint of the finale, but elsewhere much sounded a little too relaxed, at times verging on the lethargic. At one point, the pace noticeably picked up, but it seemed more of a correction than an intensification. I have no idea why the lights were dimmed at one point and then turned back up; it was probably a mistake, but it would be nice to think that it was a warning shot to the serried ranks of coughers.

Bluebeard’s Castle was performed in a semi-staged version, directed by Nick Hillel. Bartók’s opera is a strange case, in that in many respects it seems almost made to be performed in concert: its interiority, as heralded by the prologue, may even work better if it compels the listener to direct the work in his head. I am not sure that the production, based upon projections onto a ‘motorised shape’ above the orchestra and a simple enough design around the borders of the stage, added very much, but if it liberated the imagination of some unimaginative souls then it will have done some good and little harm. So far as I could tell, the designs, projections, and lighting all worked as they should.

Woodland film rendered the opening music more than usually Pelléas-like; that seemed to suit Salonen’s strategy too, at this stage characterised by what one might paradoxically call a subdued teeming of orchestral life, rendering contrast of Judit’s viewing the torture chamber all the greater. What we saw here was rather literally representative: some instruments of torture, followed by red for blood — though oddly, the red seemed more redolent of socialist propaganda posters, which, Bartók’s politics notwithstanding, I cannot believe was the intention. Such a colour-based approach might actually have worked better with Schoenberg’s contemporary Die glückliche Hand. On the other hand, visual evocation of diamonds complemented the fantasy so finely painted by the Philharmonia’s harps and celesta. Even then, however, Michelle DeYoung’s facial expressions, let alone her vocalism, had much more to say than any film projection, and still more so in the subsequent case of the flowers. DeYoung offered more than ample compensation for the previously advertised Measha Brueggergosman; hers was a powerfully dramatic and beautifully sung performance, equally alert to the demands of text and melodic line. She was formidable, not in the slightest pathetic; one could readily understand how she had her fateful way. Bluebeard’s defiant pride in the splendours of his kingdom was far better expressed by Sir John Tomlinson’s performance, noble yet wounded, than by turning the lights on and showing a few clouds on the move.

I took a while to be convinced by Salonen’s reading, wondering if the tension was sagging a little in the middle; this was certainly not a razor-sharp Bluebard’s Castle in the manner of Boulez. And yet, matters would become clearer, the greater strategy paying off handsomely, when the cold menace of the increasingly modernist-sounding orchestral palette asserted itself as Judit learned of her predecessors, likewise in the cumulative terror leading up to the final revelation. (DeYoung was superb here too.) The post-Wagnerian orchestral glory of the final climax put me in mind of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, but it was the desolation of Tomlinson thereafter that moved most of all. As with so much of the production, the appearance of Judit as an apparition at the back of stage did no violence to the work, but might better have been discarded.

Mark Berry

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