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Reviews

Mark Elder and the National Youth Orchestra perform <em>Duke Bluebeard’s Castle</em> at the Barbican Hall
17 Jan 2018

Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Barbican

Two great operas come from the year 1911 - Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Bela Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Both are masterpieces, but they are very different kinds of operas and experienced quite asymmetric performance histories.

Mark Elder and the National Youth Orchestra perform Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Barbican Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Mark Elder and the National Youth Orchestra perform Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano) and Robert Hayward (bass-baritone) (at the Nottingham Theatre Royal)

Photo credit: Tracey Whitefoot

 

Duke Bluebeard didn’t really get much international exposure until the 1950s - it premiered in France in 1950, New York in 1952 and London in 1957. Bartók certainly calls for a large orchestra, but even he would have been impressed by the sheer scale of the one fielded by the National Youth Orchestra for their performance at the Barbican - some 160 musicians.

The scale of the orchestral forces required, even in a standard performance, underpins much of the work’s psychological layers and its musical narrative. This isn’t an opera where the stage is overly important, hence why it’s usually performed in concert rather than in the opera house. It can undeniably seem a static work, and this was even the case in concert here, but it remains a magnificent opera nevertheless. You cannot escape the minor second in this opera - it’s everywhere. Like a knife being twisted in slowly, inch-by-inch, Bartók evokes sadness and despair, shock and danger through fluctuating musical scenes that while sounding dissonant (and in this performance they were grounded in phenomenally charged beacons of brilliance) they remain largely tonal. You get Judith’s “blood motif”, but you’re also aware of the sheer tonality of passages that breathe throughout Door Three and then the massive, blazing major triads that herald the opening of the Fifth Door, one of the greatest pieces Bartók ever composed.

It was perhaps not surprising that Sir Mark Elder brought an element of early Schoenberg and Wagner (Siegfried came to mind) in this performance. It was notably expansive, with some broad tempos - but this worked allowing the scale of the opera to unfold very grandly. There was something very Gothic about this castle, a touch lurid perhaps, almost as if one could touch the blood running through it - helped by some glorious string playing and some febrile and nervous, but assured, wind playing, that if it at first suggested more Hammer Horror was always authentically Bartókian. The Seventh Door was menacing and brooding, perhaps a little darker than we might normally hear - but with twelve double basses there was no shortage of depth of tone here. The First Door had thrown up a potential problem which was how successfully the two singers, Rinat Shaham, the mezzo-soprano, singing Judith, and Robert Hayward, as Bluebeard, would tackle the large orchestra. Ms Shaham in particular sounded a touch overwhelmed at the beginning of the opera (in fact, I initially thought the voice too high for the part) but she proved more than able to fight against the massed forces of the National Youth Orchestra, and her bottom range was often sumptuous. I still came away from this performance largely preferring a darker, more tenebrous, voice such as Christa Ludwig or Birgit Nilsson in the role of Judith but after the initial problems and inertia of Ms Shaham’s “crimson sunrise” in Door One she adequately played the part. She was a little too stuck to her score but was expressive enough with her hands and body to give Judith some humanity. Mr Hayward was rich and powerful and found it easy to ride above the orchestra. Daisy Evans’ direction of the opera, with its coils of alternating light switching colours, was sparse, but effective.

A brief mention of the first half of the concert, if only because it showed how ineffective a conductor can be, or perhaps something else entirely. Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake was quite superbly done, in fact it was exquisite, showing exactly what a huge orchestra can do in shaping dynamics. Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was probably the least magical performance I’ve heard in the concert hall. But perhaps it’s just wrong to think of Dukas’ piece like this: it is, after all, dark, sinister and rather terrifying. In an age of Harry Potter, Walt Disney is much more difficult to bring off, it seems.

Marc Bridle

Bela Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Robert Hayward (bass-baritone), Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano), Daisy Evans (director), National Youth Orchestra.

Barbican Hall, London: Sunday 7th January 2018.

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