LSO’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle all too briefly opened the door to a live audience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók: Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Concert filmed (directed by Jonathan Haswell) on 3.9.2020 at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London, and available (on demand for 90 days) on YouTube from 1.11.2020. (JPr)

Soloists, conductor and orchestra of LSO’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle 

Bartók (orch. Kloke) – Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (for chamber orchestra)

This was one of the first concerts with a small live audience after the opening up of the initial UK lockdown. Available in the news round-up on this site you can read Karen Cargill’s piece for The Guardian (Behind closed doors: does love and isolation make Bartók’s Bluebeard the opera for our times?) which concludes: ‘With venues dark, voices silenced, scripts unread and rehearsal rooms abandoned, I and many of my colleagues have felt lost without jobs, without our passion and drive for the art forms in which we have spent many years training. It’s not just the stark reality of redundancy that causes pain: we are a family that spend hours together crafting performances, works of art, entertainment for our audiences – and all this has had to stop.

[…] The themes examined by this opera speak to the times in which we are living: the pressure of exploring something we don’t understand, but fear and dread, and also sudden moments of beauty that are all the more cherished for their brevity.

The release I felt, opening my lungs in preparation for this performance, was an all-encompassing experience, emotionally exhausting as I let go of all the sadness, worry and stress of the past few months into the music. This is a performance I will never forget.’

Indeed, all too brief has proved the rebirth from lockdown as theatres, opera houses, and concert halls are closed once again for goodness knows how long since no two people seem capable of saying the same thing. Let’s celebrate this event although it does not entirely prove unforgettable as seen on YouTube. It had actually been broadcast first to Japan – where Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra had hoped to tour Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – and the conductor gave a simple post-performance speech ending with a deep bow from all involved for the Japanese audience who were watching.

Bluebeard’s Castle is short and pretentiously dramatic and can easily dispense – and often does as here – with any formal staging. I have seen and heard Béla Bartók’s 1918 opera a few times, however for anyone new to it, there are no subtitles for a work sung in Hungarian and no translation online from the LSO. A huge screen to the rear of Rattle and his socially distanced musicians was little used with only some gathering storm clouds and a single image for all the seven doors in the libretto. Behind these are Bluebeard’s torture chamber, the armoury, the treasury, the garden, his vast and beautiful domains, the lake of tears, and his other wives. The titles for these did come up on my TV screen but the only other English was from Gerard Finley orating – in quite an avuncular way – the opera’s brief Prologue in its translation by Peter Bartók (the composer’s son). As always, when I heard ‘Once upon a time …’ it made me smile and Finlay continued ‘Where did this happen? Outside or within? Ancient fable, what does it mean, ladies and gentlemen?’ and concludes ‘Old is this castle, old it the tale enclosed by its walls. Observe carefully.’ Some occasional lighting changes indicated the ill-fated Judith’s journey through the rooms of her new husband’s castle and all Karen Cargill otherwise did was to wander up and down the spiral metal staircases to the sides of LSO St. Luke’s intimate Jerwood Hall.

Bluebeard’s Castle was dedicated to Márta Ziegler, Bartók’s first wife and Béla Balázs’s libretto may have been somewhat autobiographical for Bartók. Bluebeard’s new wife Judith is ‘carried over the threshold’ and then their marital troubles start. Judith – through her relentless probing – reveals Bluebeard’s hidden world by opening the castle doors to let light in; actually, what she is really doing is striving to find the truth behind all the rumours circulating about him. In so doing her own fate is sealed and Judith must live on as the Lady of the (Mid)Night imprisoned 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. However, at the end – although totally desolate – Bluebeard understands he has preserved his secret in ‘darkness … darkness … darkness’.

Bluebeard’s Castle is a close relation to that other symbolist masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande, in its setting (a castle with rooms and vaults), as well as the allusions to Debussy in 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; helping to create these two operas. It would need an expert in Freud or Jung to confirm whether this is true.

I doubt whether anything in the prevailing circumstances could have added to the atmosphere created by the singers and the music. The singers mostly sang isolated in their own thoughts on either side of Rattle at the back of the hall and, of course, had no contact. Naturally, there were no real keys exchanged between them and so if we could imagine those then we would be capable of imagining all the rest of the unfolding drama.

Gerald Finley seemed eerily ‘chilled’ and this made our recognition of the darker side of Bluebeard’s nature even more disturbing. The Canadian bass-baritone has a considerable presence that demands the audience’s attention for whatever he is doing. Karen Cargill’s naturally warm timbre added an impressive edge of steely defiance and she was totally convincing in evoking Judith’s misgivings and firm resolve to open the doors. The opening of the fifth door is one of the most shattering moments in all opera and it seemed to have lost something in this rather vaguely staged concert performance.

The version performed was originally announced as Eberhard Kloke’s 2018 ‘alternative chamber version’ for thirty or so players; however, there were over 60 members of the LSO distributed around Jerwood Hall. As expected, Sir Simon Rattle had a clear grasp of the work’s dramatic structure and cranked up the all-pervading fear factor in Bartók’s disconcerting orchestration as the impeccable LSO accentuated every detail of the colourful score.

Jim Pritchard

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