The Perrault fairy tale is cosy enough: the foolish bride opens the forbidden door, the bloodthirsty Bluebeard vows to chop off her head, the bride’s brothers rescue her. It’s just that Béla Bartók didn’t see it that way. His short opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle is far more sophisticated fare: a deep exploration of the mental state of Bluebeard and Judith as she is irresistibly drawn through a series of doors of which the last will spell oblivion.

Sir Willard White © Intermusica
Sir Willard White
© Intermusica

There are just two singing roles and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were unfortunate to lose both to illness. But you couldn’t complain about the quality of the replacements: Ildikó Komlósi and Sir Willard White. The key to the role of Judith is her changing character as she moves from starry-eyed bride to heroic fortitude to, ultimately, self-destructive compulsion. Komlósi projected total involvement in the text, the timbre of her voice shifting to match Judith’s darkening mood, with little vibrato, no harshness and hitting every note on the nail.

Bluebeard’s character also changes through the opera – from concern for his new bride at the beginning, to bombast as he displays his riches and his kingdom, to despair as he realises that he cannot restrain Judith and will lose her. Willard White made less of this variation than Komlósi, but his voice remains a delight to listen to: age has not lost any of the legato, the phrasing or the velvety richness of his timbre.

However, both singers struggled with raw volume. As often with opera in concert, one felt the lack of an orchestra pit and I found myself thinking that a bit of delicate amplification wouldn’t have gone amiss. That’s particularly the case because there are a lot of places where Bartók’s orchestration gets very thick, several of which overlap with the voices, and Charles Dutoit and the RPO were playing with plenty of enthusiasm.

It was a truly excellent orchestral performance, bringing out the full range of colour in the score. Early on, the orchestration is mostly based on a background of strings with touches of colour added by winds and percussion. It then fills out to include other instruments and more powerful combinations, reaching an immense climax when the fifth door is opened and Bluebeard proudly shows Judith the extent of his kingdom: Dutoit unleashed the full power of the orchestra, the Royal Festival Hall organ included, to really push us back into our seats. The final peak, when a reluctant Bluebeard hands Judith the keys to the fatal seventh door, was equally compelling, as was the morendo ending.

The evening’s menu was fully Hungarian, with an appetizer of Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major and an amuse-bouche of Berlioz’s arrangement of the Rákóczy March from The Damnation of Faust. Neither of these two performances, I’m afraid, will live in the memory. The Rákóczy March was little short of ragged and lacked the essential military swagger.

The concerto also did little to move me. In Liszt’s own day, so rare was his virtuosity that the fact that his music was playable at all was cause for astonishment. Today, countless pianists are capable of it and a pianist of Marc-André Hamelin’s calibre is able to play it so smoothly and apparently without effort as to make it almost seem routine. There was no doubting the technical excellence of Hamelin’s playing or of his synchronism with the orchestra, but the overall performance needed something more to lift it out of the ordinary – a word that could not be applied in any way to Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – both in its depth of psychology, its amazing score and in the RPO’s colour filled performance.

****1