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Charles Dutoit [Photo courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra]
01 Feb 2015

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Béla Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911 and based upon a libretto by the Hungarian writer Béla Balázs, was not initially a success.

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Charles Dutoit [Photo courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra]


It was rejected in a national competition, prompting the composer to despair of ever gaining recognition in his home country, and this ‘failure’ deepened his earlier pessimism with regard to the indifference with which his nation viewed his work. In 1907 he had written to his mother: ‘With the Hungarian oxen—that is to say, the Hungarian public, I shall not bother anymore.’

Today Bluebeard is considered one of Bartók’s finest scores, fraught with Gothic darkness and abundant in orchestral riches and impressions. It is essentially a ‘static’ work and thus works well in the concert hall. Balázs reduced Charles Perrault’s original ‘fairy-tale’ to just two characters — the eponymous aristocrat and his new wife, Judith; and the ‘action’ — as the enthralled Judith appeals to her husband to reveal what is behind the seven locked doors within the cold confines of his castle — is fundamentally symbolic. What we witness is a psychological drama of their relationship and an emotional probing of the Duke’s distorted, tormented psyche.

The opera thus requires singers of considerable dramatic focus and expressive range; originally the Hungarians Andrea Meláth and Bálint Szabó were to assume the roles of the ill-fated Judith and her troubled master in this concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Charles Dutoit. In the event, both were indisposed through illness. As Wilde might have quipped, to lose one soloist is unlucky, but to lose two looks like carelessness, but there was nothing unfortunate about the replacement soloists on this occasion: Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi and bass-baritone Sir Willard White.

Komlósi was compelling in the early scenes: Judith’s appeals, blooming with her love for her new husband, were rich and warm, full of youthful excitement and naïve self-assurance. Impassioned and confident, Komlósi’s Judith was certain that she could assuage the castle’s inherent pain, as exhibited by the ‘weeping flagstones’ and ‘icy marble’: ‘Open, open! Throw [the doors] open!/ All those locks must be unfasten’d./ Wind shall scour them, light shall enter!’ Even as the vistas revealed behind the locked doors became ever more troubling, and a telling note of anxious vulnerability at times diminished the bright vocal glow, Komlósi’s mezzo retained an intimation of defiant will. Singing from memory, the naturalness of her phrasing was not surprisingly but was still persuasively engaging.

Though I am no scholar of languages, and am certainly no expert in Eastern European vernaculars, I found Willard White’s Hungarian diction similarly convincing (a libretto and translation was included in the programme booklet). However, the Prologue was spoken and while this is not in itself an unusual decision — and White presented the introductory text with characteristic gravitas and dignity — the spoken English sat uncomfortably beside the sung Hungarian. I’m not sure that it would not have been better to omit the Prologue entirely, so that we were plunged immediately into the psychological soundscape, with no sense of a narrative ‘frame’.

Bluebeard is a role White has sung many times and he perfectly embodied the inscrutability and hauteur of the eponymous torturer, while his legato bass-baritone both intimated a genuine sense of concern for his new wife and insinuated the seductiveness of evil. I was reminded of Iago’s recognition that Cassio, ‘hath a daily beauty in his life/ That makes me ugly’ — it is not that he envies Cassio his innate ‘goodness’, rather than he recognises the absence of this quality — and no desire for it — within himself. White inspired both horror and pity; he was magisterial but also strangely vulnerable, and at the close, when Bluebeard addresses his former wives, he seemed transported to a distant world, deep in his own subconscious.

Dramatic ‘development’ is enacted through the evolution and juxtaposition of aural colours, and the RPO and Dutoit presented the imagistic score with precision, and by turns, delicacy and penetration. Motifs such as the dissonant minor second ‘blood motif’ — symbolic of the blood which has stained Bluebeard’s armoury and seeped into the garden — gained intensity through repetition.

There was some striking playing by individual sections and soloists: James Fountain’s trumpet, when the second door was opened to reveal the armoury, was fittingly martial and bellicose; the glistening of the riches of Bluebeard’s treasury was beautifully evoked by the soft sweetness of flutes, celesta and two eloquent solo violins (Duncan Riddell and Tamás András); when the secret garden was revealed behind the fourth door, Laurence Davies’ horn solo possessed a Straussian depth and warmth. The strange juxtapositions of celesta, harp and timpani made the ‘Lake of Tears’ both beautiful and terrible.

The climax that occurs with the opening of the fifth door was thunderous and disturbing: the resounding organ (Andrew Lucas) joining the orchestra in a resonating boom suggesting the infinite expanse and sublimity of Bluebeard’s kingdom. But, the most unnerving moment came with the uncanny harmonic sequence which accompanies the opening of the final, seventh door, and the release of a silvery beam of moonlight which bathes the protagonists in its eerie shimmer.

There was a Faustian thread, as well as a Hungarian one, running through the evening’s programme, and the RPO opened the concert with Berlioz’s ‘Hungarian March’ from the first part of the composer’s légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust. In advance of his 1846 visit to Pesth, Berlioz was advised by Count Ráday, the intendant of the Hungarian National Theatre, that he would find success awaiting him if he were to arrange the national Hungarian air, ‘Rákóczy-induló’. The ‘Rákóczi March’ had been the unofficial state anthem of Hungary before Ferenc KölcseyHimnusz’ of 1823 had supplanted it; the latter remains the official national anthem to this day. Berlioz’s arrangement was greeted with such enthusiasm and excitement that when the composer began work on La Damnation de Faust he included the march in the opening scene, which he set on ‘the plains of Hungary’ and in which Faust watches troops pass by in rhythmic step to its revolutionary strains.

The LPO began with a rousing fanfare from horns, cornets and trumpets, and there was a buoyant spring in the step of the pizzicato strings and staccato woodwind which accompanied the bright and breezy melody played by flutes and clarinet. Subsequently, Dutoit did not always maintain the tension and momentum: dynamic contrasts might have been more marked, and the imitative fragmentation of the melody more rhythmically incisive. The dull thud of the bass drum effected a shift of mood, intimating an approaching foe, and Dutoit generated excitement towards the percussive conclusion, the sustained final chord swelling as if with nationalistic pride and glory.

The ‘Byronic’ prodigy, pianist and composer Franz Liszt was the final link in the thematic chain: Liszt composed his own ‘Faust Symphony’ and his fifteenth Hungarian Rhapsody is based upon the ‘Rákóczy-induló’. Here, it was Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto that was performed, a structurally inventive work in which the single long movement is divided into six sections during which various themes evolve cyclically. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin joined the RPO for a performance which was proficient but somewhat perfunctory. It’s a difficult work to bring off persuasively: while the First Concerto has Romantic bravura, ardour and swagger a plenty, the Second is more pensive and elevated, requiring attentive listening from the audience, and a strong sense of direction from conductor and soloist. Hamelin certainly had all the notes but the effortlessness of the execution made the virtuosity seem rather routine. There was some fine solo playing from the members of the RPO with clarinettist Katherine Lacy and lead cellist, Tim Gill, deserving especial praise.

But, it was the compelling performance of Bartók’s brooding masterpiece which provided the evening’s poetry.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Hector Berlioz — ‘Rakoczi March’ from The Damnation of Faust; Franz Liszt — Piano Concerto No.2; Béla Bartók — Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Charles Dutoit conductor, Marc-André Hamelin piano, Ildikó Komlósi mezzo-soprano, Williard White bass-baritone, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Tuesday 27th January 2015.

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