A Probing Exploration of Bluebeard’s Castle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schnelzer, Ravel, and Bartók: Soloists, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 13.3.2015 (MB)

Albert SchnelzerTales from Suburbia (world première)
Ravel – Suite: Ma mère l’Oye
BartókBluebeard’s Castle

Judit – Michelle DeYoung
Bluebeard – Gábor Bretz
João Henriques (director, narrator)


Albert Schnelzer’s Tales of Suburbia, written in 2012 as a co-commission from the BBC and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, here received its first performance. Lasting about a quarter of an hour, it seemed to me akin more to a vaguely, generically ‘atmospheric’ television score – doubtless fine in its place – than a concert work. Written for a large orchestra in a language at least a century out of date, it sounded like a diluted version of early-twentieth-century conservatism. The composer wrote, ‘… this is where I live. Mahler once said that he wanted his symphonies to encompass the whole world. I would settle for just suburbia.’ The seemingly aimless meandering that ensued suggested his commentary had not been intended ironically. My previous encounter with Schnelzer’s work had been a performance, the first in this country, of his Emperor Akbar. If that had left me nonplussed, this left me less than that. Mention, though, should be made of the solos from leader, Natalie Chee; if only she had been playing Szymanowski…

 Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was played charmingly, if not necessarily with quite the enchantment or precision that the greatest performances bring. Still, there was much to admire in this account from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Kirill Karabits. A stately opening ‘Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant’ seemed perfectly poised – as, of course, the movement is – between the Pavane pour une infante défunte and the later Ravel of Le Tombeau de Couperin. It did not lack a little luxuriance either. I wondered whether ‘Laidoronnette’ was taken too quickly; its treatment verged upon the harrying. However, there remained a sense of the parts contributing to a greater whole, never more so than in the concluding ‘Le Jardin féerique,’ which pretty much lived up to its name.

Bluebeard’s Castle was given a fine performance: unquestionably the highlight of the evening for me. I look forward next month to reporting back from Calixto Bieito’s new staging, in a double-bill with Gianni Schicchi, but here a spare concert staging, imaginatively conceived by João Henriques, kept the work where it arguably belongs, in the theatre of the imagination. Henriques acted as Narrator too, offering (in English translation) an inviting, probing reading of that crucial Prologue. It seemed to offer choices; yet, at the same time, we knew that Fate would win. We certainly did once Bartók’s score began its work. (If only a good few other operas could say as much as it does, in the time it takes to do so!) Arriving with seven suitcases upon a trolley, one for each door, this pairing of Bluebeard and Judit increasingly suggested both that there were things better left packed up, and that the Forbidden Question – those inevitable shades of Lohengrin – would be asked.

Michelle DeYoung was strong yet imploring, totally assured in her delivery of Bartók’s lines, bringing them, quite rightly, close to a Hungarian Pelléas. She shuddered with the orchestra, if not necessarily at the same time (if that makes any sense!) This Judit was transformed before our very ears, De Young expertly tracing Bartók’s – and Béla Balázs’s – arc from triumph to tragedy. Gábor Bretz sounded more youthful and, indeed, more aristocratic than one often hears, exercising a dark, mysterious allure; one could understand why she had fallen for him. One sensed that there was not only more to him than we knew; there was probably more than Bluebeard himself consciously knew. For this is a sadistic drama of the mind (perfectly suited, one might say, to next month’s pairing with that master-sadist, Puccini).

All the while, the orchestra under Karabits shaped and commented upon the drama – like but also unlike Debussy in his sole completed opera. (There are surely few more singular operatic masterpieces than Pelléas and Bluebeard’s Castle.) Maybe this was because Ravel had been heard before the interval, though I think not entirely so; in any case, I felt there were a few occasions upon which colour and ‘atmosphere’ were perhaps exalted at the expense of more ‘Teutonic’ structural concerns. (I am doubtless, however, consciously or otherwise, making odious comparisons, having heard Boulez conduct the work twice. What I should give to have that opportunity just once again!) The opening of that fifth door overwhelmed as it must, the disappointing electronic organ notwithstanding. (Another cause for Sir Simon Rattle to address?) And yet, Karabits seemed to impress upon us that this was not to be, that there was something unreal to what our ears led us to ‘see’. That was an exaltation of colour that was worth hearing.

Mark Berry

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