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Bluebeard’s Castle (Proms, 3 August 2016)

RAH pipe organ: hair raising sound

Prom 25

Dvořák, Cello Concerto
Cello: Alban Gerhardt
Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle

Bluebeard: John Relyea
Judit: Ildikó Komlósi
Conductor: Charles Dutoit | Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Radio 3 broadcasts all the Proms, so in case you’ve missed this event, you can listen to it here (opera starts at 1:19:00). The pre-opera talk (starting at 54:00) about Bluebeard‘s libretto and how Bartók got to writing an opera is also worth listening to, considering it’s both metaphorical and a keen psychological exploration of love and its consequences. In regards to the vocal style, two important things are discussed: Bartók was inspired by Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and adapted that very unoperatic way of writing to the prosody of Hungarian language, which is of course very different from French.

Alban Gerhardt did the solo cello honours on the Dvořák and then encored with Bach’s Prelude to the Cello Suite #6 in D major, which, though I didn’t know (and I didn’t hear what he said) I was able to recognise as Bach. So it’s not just Vivaldi 😉 You can tell I’m not the biggest cello fan and I was actually a bit alarmed when I saw him return for an encore (let’s get on with the main dish!), but I will say I appreciated the emotional complexity of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto as well as Gerhardt’s gentle/feathery style.

Having (for sentimental reasons) booked a seat dangerously close to the organ and… behind the singers, I missed a great deal of the vocals so I returned to the Radio 3 broadcast myself, for further edification. Either the singers didn’t want to shout (well, they shouldn’t, it’s not that kind of opera) or sitting behind a bass and a mezzo is another definition for snookered. Common sense would sway one against sitting behind singers… except the hall is so big (capacity: 5,272) that the prospect of sitting central but too far from everything didn’t appeal.

The moral: if you want to hear the singers you need to fork out for a central seat or stand in the pit. I don’t want to stand in the pit unless it’s a rock concert (and even then, if a lawn chair is on offer I’ll leave the young and restless the pleasure of early onset varicose veins).

The good news is the orchestra’s sound was crystal clear. Even the harps were perfectly audible. Let alone the pipe organ, which unsettled me with its interventions. The radio broadcast will give you clarity for singers but loses orchestra’s spaciousness. If nothing else, the huge Royal Albert Hall showcases the sound of the orchestra.

And this is a mesmerising score that has to be heard in a hall rather than on record. Since seeing it last year and due to its brevity, I’ve become quite familiar with it (I’ve probably listened to the Kertesz/Berry/Ludwig version for about 20 times). I was on the edge of my seat throughout, with my eyes glued to the orchestra, eager to see who makes all the wonderful sounds which build this musical mystery. The singers didn’t much interact but in this case it made sense. Bluebeard should stay a cypher to the end.

But as far as I could hear, Komlósi sounds a shade brighter in the house compared to the broadcast. Relyea keeps the solidity and darkness but on the radio you can actually understand what he’s saying 😉 Both of them did a very good job, with Komlósi downright outstanding in navigting this very interesting role; Judit’s initial enthusiasm, her subsequent forcefulness and her fears and horror were all there. Then again, she’s sung it once or twice, as well as recorded it.

I was curious if the spoken word intro would be skipped. It was kept, with Relyea reciting it in English, which was not a bad idea in itself, but I wish it wasn’t superimposed to the very evocative orchestral intro. It’s one of my favourite intros/overtures and I sometimes listen to it for its own sake.

There’s a strong jazz era atmosphere to it. In fact the music is so rich in texture and so vivid (with the xylophone and the celesta and all sorts of other percussion and the army of winds heavily featured and the harps and the pipe organ) it’s basically a film noire. It helps to know the jist of the libretto but you can survive very well without knowing every word; the music will show everything in a way that words can’t quite. This is, I think, one of Bartók’s great achievements: expressing the essence of the libretto, the beyond-words deep recesses of the human soul. Judit is the reasonable one who names the experiences behind each door.

The pre-opera talk panel members emphasise the extreme darkness of the libretto. I would say it’s rather just enough. Intimacy isn’t a walk in the park, is it? Usually there is a reason why hidden things aren’t being aired. And also: forcing someone to show things about themselves – things they are used to hiding – has an unsettling effect on that person.

As the opera starts, Bluebeard keeps urging Judit to enter. He sounds (to me) a bit uncertain, as if he doesn’t want to lose his nerve. Judit, of course, is all sunshine and good (she thinks) intentions. The panel touched on the role reversal, with Bluebeard beckoning and Judit being the active/penetrating force, the agent of change. Upon entering she discovers with amazement and some alarm that the castle has no windows/sunshine. But she plows on – and here Judit veteran Komlósi phrases the line with a wonderful mixture of apprehension and determination – to find the truth, because, as Judit says, she loves him.

With each demand for the key to the next door, the determination turns into the frenzy of realisation there is no way back and the admission of love gets smaller and more uncertain. It’s also interesting that Bluebeard, far from being menacing, keeps advising her to be cautious. He sounds like there is a struggle within him between being unable to resist her demands and a great reluctance to reveal himself. Anyone with a bit of Richard Strauss experience will recognise his influence in the piercing call of the flutes, heralding a new discovery.

The plinking of the celesta suggests the sparkling of the gold and jewels in the third room. I like how it keeps plinking whilst they’re talking. As I was saying, super cinematic. A solo horn then expresses the spaciousness of the garden (and its link to hunting, I suppose) behind the fourth door. The winds join it to add layers of foliage and then the flutes bring in the birds and butterflies. The broadcast really can’t translate the tremendousness of sound that came out that huge pipe organ when the 5th door opened. I knew what was coming and I was still like this :-O :-O :-O

All is thine forever, Judith.
Here both dawn and twilight flourish.
Here sun, moon, and stars have dwelling.
They shall be thy deathless playmates.

Can’t get more poetic than that in a libretto, eh? You can read the English translation here.

So Bluebeard has opened up to her but she, to the tune of a distant trumpet that acompanies the same grandious phrase now paler and sort of desintegrating, still focuses on the underlying bloodiness of his world. It’s hard, when you’ve opened up to someone, to see them underwhelmed and realise that they still have their own version of it all, which is a lot less grand than yours. Poor Bluebeard’s music gets downwright jazzy when he tries to entice her with his version of who he is. His style of seduction is cool and relaxed earlier on when he responds to her very energetic (dramatic soprano playground) demands and playful – even amorous – here. Yet she still wants to open the last two doors.

Finally Bluebeard has allowed the sunshine in, which was her goal (or so she thought) in the beginning, but now she‘s not happy. You can tell they both influenced each other. She made him share the burden, which, in turn, made him happy. He made her change her goal, from simply seeking happiness to looking for truth. Or maybe he just made her unhappy 😉

The lake of tears is illustrated with the help of the harps and the celesta and it feels (to me) like stale water in a cement basement. This is a pretty good metaphor for tears. Then, interestingly again, the same phrase is done on a lower key on the harps when she doesn’t answer his call to kiss him. This is the trouble with these cinematic scores: you end up dissecting every phrase to the best of your ability, because every phrase hits emotionally.

The moment before the seventh door is opened is another very loud one, now heavy, as opposed to the major key one for the 5th door. It’s a good time as any to say that Maestro did an excellent job with the work, which covers a very wide range, from delicate ppps to Strauss-loud’n’heavy. Like I was saying earlier, I was on the edge of the seat throughout (thank goodness it’s short), never losing focus of the ever changing moods. And even on second listen via the broadcast I can tell it wasn’t just my appreciation for the music speaking. He reined in the orchestra very well and he navigated the transitions with lots of care, so that the myriad of details wouldn’t be lost.

A last interesting detail in the libretto is how, when telling Judit the stories of his three silent wives, Bluebeard doesn’t finish at the third one, but goes on to talk about her in the third person. Judit reminds him she’s still there. The description of the wives and Bluebeard giving them each the rule over the time of day when they met has echoes of Hades and Persephone. I’ve always felt they weren’t so much dead as enslaved in some way.

Most traditional societies tend to have myths where some earth spirit takes a wife from the land of living. She has a lot of freedom within his realm, with the one rule that she can never leave. Perhaps a metaphor for traditonal marriage 😉 It’s interesting how, in what is essentially a pagan story, the truth does not set you free. People often stay together because of the convenience of familiarity.

An emotional – as well as intellectually challenging – evening and equally emotional re-listening to it on the radio. It’s one of those works that has wormed a special place in my heart, the kind I would always be happy to see live.

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Thursday’s Something Else (Dvořák)

tseThis week is a return to Central Europe with Dvořák’s Rusalka, which I have thus far neglected. I really enjoyed Herheim’s La Monnaie’s production1. I especially liked how the sex shop run by The Water Goblin doubled as a bridal shop during the day. The concept is so coherent and there are so many good points made, it warrants a longer post. Except I’m not so fond of the music. It’s not bad (in fact, very well structured) and it’s excellently sung but it doesn’t move me all that much.


  1. As usual a bunch of po-faced complained in the comments area about it being a “travesty” (of their own lack of imagination). I guess they don’t know what rusalkas represent in Slavic legend, or water and nature spirits in mythology in general. I don’t think the moron who compared it to Romeo and Juliet understands literature as such…