Monday 7 April 2014

Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Duke Bluebeard's Castle - SIGCD372
Bartok Duke Bluebeard's Castle: John Tomlinson, Michelle DeYoung, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen: Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 7 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Thrilling live recording of Bartok's opera.

The role of Bluebeard in Bartok's opera is one that John Tomlinson has recorded before. It suits him and the dark grain of his voice, and he is on terrific for on this live recording made in Vienna with Michelle DeYoung as Judith and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The recording is on the Signum label.

Bartok wrote the work in 1910, setting a Hungarian text by the poet Bela Balazs. Rather oddly, considering the subject matter, Bartok dedicated it to his new wife! The opera has a very restricted action with Bluebeard and Judith simple opening the doors one by one. Not much is lost in a good concert performance, which means the work is ideal recording material if the performance is sufficiently vivid, as is this one.

The work is performed here with its original spoken prologue, delivered with quiet mystery by Juliet Stevenson. Spoken prologue slipping into melodrama and then opera quite seamlessly, though it does feel odd having spoken English then sung Hungarian.

Both soloists are rather older than the age suggested by the libretto, but frankly the drama works with protagonists of any age. Michelle de Young is firm of voice, with a rich lower register. At the opening she is more dignified than virginal. Passionate and anxious, if mature, but faced with Tomlinson's enigmatic yet implacable Bluebeard she has every right to be.

Tomlinson's familiar tones are vivid to a fault, he is clearly on top form, highly expressive with a strong attention to the Hungarian words. I have no feel for how idiomatic the soloists' Hungarian is but both are highly expressive in the language.

There is a certain melancholy dead-pan quality to Tomlinson which complements Michelle de Young's passionate Judith and both bring a vivid sense of drama to the work. The orchestral contributions are almost more notable with Esa-Pekka Salonen bringing out the melancholy folk influences in the orchestra. The big climax at the opening of the fifth door is thrilling, but in other places we have a superb combination of control and expression with Salonen having an ear for the detail and drama of Bartok's score.

The conclusion of the opera is riveting, vocally and instrumentally, with the live performance giving a real edge to the drama. You are probably going to want other recordings of the disc in addition to this, but for Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic on top form this is fantastic.

Bela Bartok (1881 - 1945) - Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911-12) [66.42]
Bluebeard - John Tomlinson (bass)
Judith - Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
Narrator - Juliet Stevenson
Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Recorded live at the Konzerthaus, Vienna, 8 November 2011

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