Triumphant New Semi-staged Production of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Debussy, Janáček, Bartók: Michelle DeYoung (Judith), Sir John Tomlinson (Bluebeard), Juliet Stevenson (narrator), Nick Hillel (director), Philharmonia Orchestra,  Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham 21.10.2011

Debussy: Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune
Janáček: Sinfonietta
Bartók:     Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

If ever there was a programme tailor-made for the musical sensibilities of the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen then surely this was it; three masterworks spanning the twilight years of the nineteenth century to the mid 1920’s that allowed the Finnish maestro full reign with his interpretative imagination and including the premiere of a new semi-staged production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, complete with video installation and a gift of a Bluebeard in Sir John Tomlinson. This is the stuff that conductor’s dreams are made of.

Debussy’s Mallarmè inspired Prélude saw Salonen dispense with the baton to allow him to shape the music using his hands alone in a manner that drew glowing expressivity from the orchestra from the opening bars. The sensuous sounds and shapes of the opening flute solo, the sumptuous warmth of the strings that melded so beautifully with the equally sumptuous acoustic of Symphony Hall and the wonders of Debussy’s orchestration in his use of the wind and horns, were subtly emphasised whilst allowing the essentially erotic intensity of the music to build in waves of sound as Salonen used the full extent of the podium to draw his players into Debussy’s impressionistic and exotic sound world. It made for a compelling and intense opening to the concert.

With the scenery for Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in place immediately behind the orchestra and considerably reducing the space available for the players, Esa-Pekka Salonen faced an immediate problem in Janáček’s Sinfonietta in terms of where to place the additional brass instruments. His solution was to place the players on the lower balcony to the left of the stage, whilst the standard orchestral brass section was squeezed in behind the woodwind without the use of raised staging – meaning that the players were largely concealed from the audience in the circle.

Previous performances of the Sinfonietta in Symphony Hall have tended to feature the additional brass standing and arched behind the main orchestra, a position which enhances the immediacy of the composer’s wall of sound, the effect of which was lost to some degree on this occasion by the enforced antiphonal positioning of the “band”. Whether Salonen saw his solution as an effective one or a compromise is arguable but it certainly did not dampen the enthusiasm and commitment of the brass players themselves whose fanfares in the opening Allegretto rang majestically around the hall, although the separation of the brass from the timpani on the stage in the first movement was surely not what Salonen would have ideally wanted.

Although the Sinfonietta carries an essentially abstract title, it is a fascinating exercise to relate Janáček’s music back to the original titles he gave to each of the movements with the “The Castle”, “Queen’s Monastery” and “The Street” of the central panels here vividly portrayed, although it was in the final Allegro, originally a portrait of “The Town Hall” that orchestra and conductor left the greatest impression.

That the highlight of the concert was Duke Bluebeard’s Castle however was beyond all doubt.

With the jagged, angular heights of the castle walls represented behind the orchestra doubling as a multi-panelled projection surface for the video installation of Director Nick Hillel and his video production company Yeast Culture, Juliet Stevenson’s spine-tingling narration of the Prologue set the nerve-jangling atmosphere of foreboding for Béla Balázs’s dark tale in eerie fashion, with the opening of each of the rooms metaphorically symbolised by a pneumatically controlled over stage structure of geometric shapes that as well as forming a further projection surface, were manipulated like a complex lock into a variety of patterns upon the Judith’s entry to each of Bluebeard’s chambers.

The sense of enveloping claustrophobia that grew out of the opening video sequences, the dazzlingly powerful view of Bluebeard’s Kingdom and the ghostly, haunting female facial silhouettes that formed the backdrop to the opening of the final door revealing Bluebeard’s former wives were brilliantly conceived and handled, with the lighting effects of Hiller’s designer David Holmes forming an integral part of the staging.

Nick Hiller’s production and dramatic visuals proved to be nothing short of a triumph, enthralling totally from the very start, whilst it is well nigh impossible to imagine a more chilling, atmospheric and powerful performance than that given by Sir John Tomlinson, Michelle DeYoung and the forces of the Philharmonia. With the production now set to go on tour, this is a Bluebeard not to be missed.

Christopher Thomas