BartÛk’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Barbican

Duke Bluebeard
didn’t really get much international exposure until the 1950s – it
premiered in France in 1950, New York in 1952 and London in 1957. BartÛk
certainly calls for a large orchestra, but even he would have been
impressed by the sheer scale of the one fielded by the National Youth
Orchestra for their performance at the Barbican – some 160 musicians.

The scale of the orchestral forces required, even in a standard
performance, underpins much of the work’s psychological layers and its
musical narrative. This isn’t an opera where the stage is overly important,
hence why it’s usually performed in concert rather than in the opera house.
It can undeniably seem a static work, and this was even the case in concert
here, but it remains a magnificent opera nevertheless. You cannot escape
the minor second in this opera – it’s everywhere. Like a knife being
twisted in slowly, inch-by-inch, BartÛk evokes sadness and despair, shock
and danger through fluctuating musical scenes that while sounding dissonant
(and in this performance they were grounded in phenomenally charged beacons
of brilliance) they remain largely tonal. You get Judith’s “blood motif”,
but you’re also aware of the sheer tonality of passages that breathe
throughout Door Three and then the massive, blazing major triads that
herald the opening of the Fifth Door, one of the greatest pieces BartÛk
ever composed.

It was perhaps not surprising that Sir Mark Elder brought an element of
early Schoenberg and Wagner (Siegfried came to mind) in this
performance. It was notably expansive, with some broad tempos – but this
worked allowing the scale of the opera to unfold very grandly. There was
something very Gothic about this castle, a touch lurid perhaps, almost as
if one could touch the blood running through it – helped by some glorious
string playing and some febrile and nervous, but assured, wind playing,
that if it at first suggested more Hammer Horror was always authentically
BartÛkian. The Seventh Door was menacing and brooding, perhaps a little
darker than we might normally hear – but with twelve double basses there
was no shortage of depth of tone here. The First Door had thrown up a
potential problem which was how successfully the two singers, Rinat Shaham,
the mezzo-soprano, singing Judith, and Robert Hayward, as Bluebeard, would
tackle the large orchestra. Ms Shaham in particular sounded a touch
overwhelmed at the beginning of the opera (in fact, I initially thought the
voice too high for the part) but she proved more than able to fight against
the massed forces of the National Youth Orchestra, and her bottom range was
often sumptuous. I still came away from this performance largely preferring
a darker, more tenebrous, voice such as Christa Ludwig or Birgit Nilsson in
the role of Judith but after the initial problems and inertia of Ms
Shaham’s “crimson sunrise” in Door One she adequately played the part. She
was a little too stuck to her score but was expressive enough with her
hands and body to give Judith some humanity. Mr Hayward was rich and
powerful and found it easy to ride above the orchestra. Daisy Evans’
direction of the opera, with its coils of alternating light switching
colours, was sparse, but effective.

A brief mention of the first half of the concert, if only because it showed
how ineffective a conductor can be, or perhaps something else entirely.
Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake was quite superbly done, in fact it
was exquisite, showing exactly what a huge orchestra can do in shaping
dynamics. Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was probably the least
magical performance I’ve heard in the concert hall. But perhaps it’s just
wrong to think of Dukas’ piece like this: it is, after all, dark, sinister
and rather terrifying. In an age of Harry Potter, Walt Disney is much more
difficult to bring off, it seems.

Marc Bridle

Bela BartÛk: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Robert Hayward (bass-baritone), Rinat Shaham
(mezzo-soprano), Daisy Evans (director), National Youth Orchestra.

Barbican Hall, London: Sunday 7th January 2018.

image_description=Mark Elder and the National Youth Orchestra perform Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Barbican Hall
product_title=Mark Elder and the National Youth Orchestra perform Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id= Above: Mark Elder and the National Youth Orchestra perform Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with Rinat Shaham (mezzo-soprano) and Robert Hayward (bass-baritone) (at the Nottingham Theatre Royal)

Photo credit: Tracey Whitefoot