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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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La voix humaine/Bluebeard’s Castle (Wiesbaden, 14 June 2015)

wiesbadentheater

Hessisches Staatstheater is a small continental venue with circular balconies, decorated in such a way that a Baroque opera would feel right at home. Nonetheless I liked the intimate atmosphere which fit these two one act operas that rely so heavily on singers’ acting chops.

La voix humaine | Poulenc

Woman: Julia Migenes
Conductor: Zsolt Hamar
Hessisches Staatsorchester Wiesbaden | Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
Director: Thorleifur Orn Arnarsson

Yesterday’s thoughts. Relationships, the 20th century way. At first sight women seem to come out the worse for it. But whilst doing my intellectual best with La voix humaine last week it occurred to me that the woman does not necessarily die at the end. Watching Denise Duval talking about her and Poulenc each going through a breakup during the creation of the opera (with Cocteau basing the libretto on his own) reminded me that a work of art can be the expression of a very intense moment rather than a literal account. Thinking “I’d die if you leave me” when a relationship is shaky is quite common, yet most of us manage to survive this experience more than once.

This production. It turns out I was right in thinking the end of the phone conversation does not have to mean death. Or at least, not the character’s death. The phone, though, ends up dramatically smashed to the floor – nice touch getting the receiver to hang below the stage. I wonder if it was rehearsed that way.

casinopondMaybe I should start by saying that I’ve been having a ridiculously great time here in Wiesbaden so I was super pliant this afternoon. First off: the weather! When I left London it was resolutely raining. Upon reaching Germany it was cloudy and rather breezy. Wiesbaden = hot and sunny and pleasantly fragrant with honeysuckle in the air. I hiked all morning up and down these charming and quiet roads, then I hired a row boat in the park behind the Casino and got semi drenched from the giant water fountain in the middle of the pond. I should like 19th century opera a lot more considering my idea of fun is right out of a Victorian novel 😉

But I was here for very serious business indeed. So I was a bit apprehensive that I would feel bored with La voix humaine. I wasn’t. This production did not go down a screechy route. So, I was thinking later (whilst back in the park, strolling), 20th century opera all right, but done the 21st century way. It was, in fact, often humorous. Perhaps the best thing about Migenes’ performance was the way she managed to bring out the French-ness of the libretto. Forgive me if I am wrong, but what I call French-ness is a sort of rational spirit in the face of the worst situation. Where, say, the Germans would get super angsty, the French will go “oh, well”, shrug and pick themselves up. When I heard this in the past it was, interestingly, done the angsty way. Seeing Duval in that interview I thought “this woman isn’t angsty and yet Poulenc wrote it for her…”

One of the funniest things was that the woman had not one but several phones “stashed” around the house. It was almost like she had a phone for every mood or each phone represented a side of her personality. Very interesting. This also looked funny whenever the phone rang and she had to decide on which one to answer or when the line was cut yet again and she eagerly restored them all whilst waiting for her ex to call her back (usually she’d throw the phone whenever the call got interrupted, which was all the time). Generally, far from a raw drama, hers looked acted (intentionally, I mean). This was rather an artful woman not a suicidal one. Good call, seeing as the opera was this time paired with Bartok’s allegorical exploration of power and intimacy within relationships.

A kékszakállú herceg vára | Bartok

Bluebeard: Gerd Grochowski
Judit: Vesselina Kasarova
Conductor: Zsolt Hamar
Hessisches Staatsorchester Wiesbaden | Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
Director: Uwe Eric Laufenberg

Yesterday’s thoughts. Why is Judit so attracted to this mysterious character? Why does Bluebeard need her? Why is she so keen on changing his world? You’d think she’d be fine with it if she likes him so much. But “women love bad boys but they always try to change their partners”. Also: curiosity killed the cat.

From the libretto we glean a few things: Judit has run off with Bluebeard against her family’s wishes; Bluebeard is charismatic and behaves in a highly manipulative manner; Judit mistakenly thinks she’s in control of the situation until it’s too late. It’s a 20th century version of Persephone and Hades – the women in his collection literally give life to his world. This Persephone has agency but ultimately it’s still Hades who calls the shots (on his turf).

Judit does have power insofar as Bluebeard needs her. Without women his world would wither and die. What she can’t do is change who he is. I wonder if things would’ve been different (happy) had Judit not wanted to “get to know him better”. It’s only natural to want to know your partner but it’s true that pushing someone’s boundaries of intimacy can have disastrous consequences for the both involved. Why would someone so obsessed with privacy want a nosy woman?

I also wonder if Bluebeard keeps looking for another wife in hopes of finding one who could accept him as he is. Judit initially appears open minded (she refuses to believe the rumours about him) but is she really? When she discovers his deepest secret she turns very cold towards him. It’s almost as if she was more into solving the mystery than loving him. But that’s true of relationships: familiarity breeds contempt. Eventually the very things you find quaint yet endearing about someone become the very things you despise. The progress of the opera mirrors the life of a relationship: from irrational attraction to co-dependency and emotional death.

This production. There is practically no blood. When Judit repeatedly demands to have the doors opened, Bluebeard shows her “the horrors” on his laptop. So I started to wonder how much of this was in Judit’s mind and how much was really Bluebeard’s doing.

It will probably come as no surprise that VK’s Judit was no demure damsel at any point. I later overheard this exchange:

opera goer 1: I thought she was gonna kill him.
opera goer 2: she wasn’t happy. He did nice things for her yet she was suspicious.
opera goer 1: you would be!

When the opera starts Bluebeard and Judit ascend to Bluebeard’s pad in a lift. I think it’s interesting that they go up when in the libretto it is suggested they go down (maybe a bit Captain Obvious). A lift “clock” numbered 1 to 7 is showing 1. At the end of the opera the “clock” had reset itself back to 1 and Bluebeard takes the lift back down. So it wasn’t all Judit’s imagination.

There is an interesting moment where Judit tries to see for herself what Bluebeard is hiding by tampering with his briefcase. When Bluebeard returns to the room she’s all “hi, honey, come sit here with me so we can make out and maybe you can share a secret or two [double grin, leg, cleavage etc.]”. When she finally makes him show her (on the laptop) what’s behind door #1 (the torture chamber) she closes the lid then opens it again half in fascination, half in a sort of clinical curiosity.

Another pivotal moment in understanding VK’s Judit came when she realises, after the 3rd door (here represented by a box of jewels) that the jewels are also tainted by blood. In the libretto is says she’s “alarmed” but VK looked like she meant to say “jewels, he’s trying to modify me; must keep my wits about me”.

The unlocking of the 5th door is the central moment in the opera. It’s where Bluebeard decides to open up to Judit and she guesses his most dreadful secret. I thought Hamar did a very good job with the mounting intensity and the subsequent moment of clarity. Also good one Bartok, it’s truly a cool bit of music. Here VK had the chance to raise above the full on orchestra and managed to make herself heard without damaging yours truly’s ears (I was in the second row). An interesting and very welcome feat, considering what I have recently suffered at the “hands” of other singers… Thank goodness for mezzos and basses.

At this point the director opened up the claustrophobic space by receeding the side walls and having a landscape projection in the background. Very cool combo of music and visuals. This was supposedly Bluebeard’s land but we know it’s his soul. It looks magnificent on first glance but alas, Judit is now too sure of what she knows (that she can’t change him and she can’t escape).

This is where she confronts him and what opera goer 1 was referring to when he meant VK looked like she was gonna kill him. She got very physical all right. Vocally she was her usual lyric self, which is just as well, I didn’t particularly like it in the past when singers got shrill. Her top notes were under control, there are no low notes I can remember and her middle is always beautiful.

Interestingly, Bluebeard looked emotionally tortured by her vigorous accusations and, in a fit of self defense, stabbed her. This was the most emotion we got from Bluebeard in all opera. Mostly he looked cryptically poker faced but mild mannered and almost romantic when wooing her with flowers. At this point, coupled with my suspicion that Judit was unnecessarily paranoid, I felt for him, wondering if he didn’t lose it because he loved her, made the effort to open up to her beyond his usual limits only to have her not understand him after all. In that sense the ending is a let down. Is Bluebeard simply a serial killer after all… but before we got to the end of it all, this climax worked very well for me: engaging and powerful in a subtle way (subtle musically, I mean). Grochowski’s warm bass sounded lovely in Bluebeard’s “tune of seduction”, which is where it matters. I can still remember it.

And still, after he stabbed her and she looked quite dead, Bluebeard kept going on about his brides behind the last door, who came out in ghostly fashion and then lo and behold, Judit wasn’t so dead after all. Or was she? She looked alive but rather zombified, which fits my idea of emotional death within relationships. If she couldn’t change him she lost her purpose. Maybe women try to change their partners because other venues of changing the world are traditionally restricted for them? In this case I think it’s who changes whom and whoever loses is lost. It definitely felt like a competition of willpower and cunning and the sex like manipulation on both sides.

Where I was a bit worried it was going to be a gloomy afternoon it ended up thought provoking. By the end I wanted more phones hurled around and more action in the torture chamber 😉 with a row boat and a water fountain thrown in for good measure.

Random stuff:

wiesbadenvilla

gorgeous villa on a quiet and steep street

in case you were wondering how VK fared in Hungarian, I got about the same number of words (3.2) as when she lets loose in French 😉 I’m saying this as someone quite familiar with the language.

as soon as Bluebeard started singing, my seatmates, who looked very “respectable” otherwise and behaved naturally during La voix humaine, began talking loudly (about whatever was happening on stage, at least). I was thinking WTF, yo? but I was too embarrassed to start an argument. Luckily a chap in the front row shushed them angrily.

Hessisches Staatstheater has a shop which sells random shit like fur coats and wooden Nativity scenes (in June!?), so no opera magnet for me. Also no opera adverts round town. However, it’s such a cute venue I urge all and sundry to visit it sometime. There will be pictures when I get back home.