Salonen Opens the Doors on a Dramatic Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Debussy, Bartók: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo), Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Juliet Stevenson (narrator), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.11.2011. (JPr)

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Bartók: Piano Concerto No.3
Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Only a couple of small UK concerts and some more European dates remain in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s year-long series, Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók and this concert was a suitably celebratory Royal Festival Hall climax.

Not for the first time the Philharmonia’s advertised timings bore little relation to what actually happened and as Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, drifted on well beyond its usual one hour or so, it made the music of the first half, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Bartók’s own Piano Concerto No.3, more inconsequential than they should perhaps have been. The Debussy was included because – according to Malcolm Gilles’s programme note – it was in 1894, the year of its completion that twentieth-century music began. As Bluebeard’s Castle owes so much to the sound world of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, this was interesting music to hear at the beginning of the concert. (I wish Professor Gillies’s brochure that accompanied the Bartók season – though often interesting and informative – hadn’t made me regret I do not have a music degree as I might have understood more of it.) Salonen’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was totally persuasive, seductive and had all the conductor’s typical virtues of clarity and an unhurried sense of structure. Samuel Coles’s flute shimmered over wonderful colours from harps and strings. Splendid as this undoubtedly was, I can never hear this piece without recalling Nureyev’s compelling account of the faun in his recreation of the Nijinsky choreography.

Whilst it is an important Bartók composition, his Third Piano Concerto seemed unnecessary in the context of the opera that was to be performed after the interval. In fact there was, for me, a sense of the routine in Yefim Bronfman’s swift and respectful performance so that I found it hard to engage with it. I believe that this concerto is technically quite straightforward as it was composed for Bartók’s second wife, Ditta Pásztory, who apparently had rather small hands. The composer knew he had leukaemia and did not have long to live, so possibly expected that the concerto would provide something for her to play and make money from. It was left unfinished on his death and the rather rapid final bars were completed by Tibor Serly. György Sándor gave its first performance but Bartók’s widow did later play it and even recorded it in the 1970s.

Much is made about its Mozartian and Beethovenian credentials, however I thought more about Liszt in the spikiness of the music and Richard Strauss in its almost wistful sense of resignation. Bronfman seemed at his best in the religiosity of the second movement and this had a steady intensity that was almost spiritual. There was a lovely wind chorale at the centre of this movement and the ‘rufous-sided towhee’ – that Bartók wrote, Messiaen-like, and reminiscently into the score – called out plaintively in the ‘Night’s Music’.

While the dedicatee for Piano Concerto No.3 was Bartok’s second wife, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was dedicated to Márta Ziegler, his first wife. As Malcolm Gillies writes: ‘If you were an innocent Hungarian girl, 17 going on 18, would you not be a little worried when your 30-year-old husband dedicated such a work to you? … But Márta stood loyally by her man through the grim years of war … We have to wonder, however: did she actually find their sudden divorce in 1923 a blessed release from Bartók’s castle?’ So Béla Balázs’ libretto may have been more than just a little autobiographical for Bartók. Bluebeard’s new wife Judith is ‘carried over the threshold’ and then their marital troubles start. Judith, by her relentless coaxing, reveals Bluebeard’s secret world by opening the castle doors to let light in, actually what she is really doing is trying to find the truth behind all the rumours circulating about him. By doing this she seals her own fate and will live on as the Lady of the (Mid)Night incarcerated behind the seventh door, joining the Ladies of the Dawn, of Noon and of Evening. Bluebeard seems resigned to what will happen and does little to prevent the inevitable; but at the end, totally desolate, realises he has preserved his secret in ‘darkness, darkness, darkness’.

Clearly, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is closely related to that other symbolist masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande in more ways than just the music. The legend of Bluebeard and his possible real-life counterparts were much discussed in the early years of the 1900s; it was perhaps the increasing emancipation of women that brought out the deep-seated anxieties lurking in the psyche of artists and intellectuals – it would need an expert in Freud or Jung to let me know whether this is true.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is short and overwhelmingly dramatic and can easily afford to dispense (and often does) with any staging whatsoever. The Philharmonia combined with director Nick Hillel on a semi-staging with the singers in dark clothes singing with their backs to the orchestra and a grey backdrop with a hint of turrets on which videos were projected. Colour changes indicated the ill-fated Judith’s journey through the rooms of her new husband’s castle. First we see woodland, then the dripping castle walls and as the various doors open, the mechanics of the torture chamber and contents of the armoury are revealed; there are then sparkling diamonds for the treasury, a sensual garden and the sad pool of tears. Throughout much blood was shown, which was all a vivid horror film-cliché red. I doubt whether in this context it all added anything to the atmosphere created by the singers and the music. Overhead was a large four-piece ‘shape’ with more than a hint of origami to it that opened up more the further Judith penetrates the castle’s secrets and then seems to trap her at the end.

David Edwards is credited with the staging but it was not clear what he added as the singers mostly sang isolated in their own thoughts on either side of the front of the platform and had little contact. There were no real keys exchanged between them … so if we could imagine keys then we should have been capable of imagining the rest of what was going on.

John Tomlinson in waistcoat and cape looked like King Edward VII and growled and spat out the Hungarian words. He is virtually critic-proof, having perfected his grizzled old-duffer performance over the last twenty years or so and he continues to age gracefully into it. The top of his voice is past its sell-by-date but as ever his commanding presence demands the audience’s attention whenever he is involved. Although shoeless, Michele DeYoung towered over her ‘husband’ and was equally imperious when evoking Judith’s vulnerability, insecurities and resolve to open the doors. There was a superb depth of tone in her lower voice but higher up it lacked a cutting edge; nevertheless when she screamed at the opening of the fifth door it remained one of the most shattering moments in all opera and had lost nothing in this semi-staged performance.

Esa-Pekka Salonen clearly had a sound grasp of the work’s dramatic structure but was somewhat leisurely – probably to accommodate his singers – in cranking up the pervading sense of unease in Bartók’s disconcerting orchestration while his impeccable Philharmonia Orchestra wrung out every last Bartókian detail of the colourful score.

Finally, it might have seemed a good idea to have the opera’s brief Prologue spoken by a leading actress, Juliet Stevenson. However her slightly lispy – overly actorly and very precious – rendition of ‘Once upon a time …’ made me want to laugh out loud and honestly I could have done better … and wouldn’t have needed to be paid as much as she probably was.

Jim Pritchard