The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chief Conductor Domingo Hindoyan presented a superb performance of Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle last night at the Philharmonic Hall which ended with cheers from the enthusiastic audience. Bluebeard’s Castle is ideally suited to performance in a concert hall rather than an opera house. There are only two characters, Duke Bluebeard and his new wife, Judith, sung by Hungarian bass-baritone Károly Szemerédy and soprano Adrienn Miksch. There is no action beyond the opening of seven doors to reveal what is behind them and there is a huge orchestra which deserves to be seen. Nevertheless, the opera is intense and powerful and a small amount of presentation can turn a performance into a gripping drama, as we experienced in Liverpool.

Adrienn Miksch, Károly Szemerédy and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© Gareth Jones

The opera was sung in Hungarian, with English surtitles displayed on screens at either side of the stage. The spoken Prologue was in English and appeared to be a recording, projected from different places round the hall, but unfortunately it was not very clear and often hard to understand. Behind the orchestra was a wide screen on which at first we saw an abstract design which was replaced with the scenes revealed as each door was unlocked. As the text demanded, red was added to the images: blood on the instruments in the torture chamber, blood on the weapons, white roses tinged with red. One quibble: when Judith told us that the lake of tears was still, why did we see waves?

Bluebeard is a fairy tale stripped down to its essential core. There is no explanation as to where the characters come from or why they are there or what has happened in the past. Instead we feel suspended in a moment and something fundamental is being revealed to us. What that might be is left to us to imagine. 

Adrienn Miksch and Károly Szemerédy sing Bluebeard's Castle
© Gareth Jones

There was little acting as such here. The soloists stood at the front of the stage on either side of the conductor. However, at significant moments they looked at each other and this was incredibly powerful. All of this would have counted for nothing if the music had not been so fine. Both soloists sang smoothly and expressively throughout. Not knowing Hungarian, I cannot tell whether it is a stunningly lyrical language; these singers made me believe that it was. They seemed utterly committed to their roles, communicating the intensity of the drama with glorious singing. The third character in the drama was the orchestra itself. It was often in the background, creating an atmosphere over which Szemerédy and Miksch could present their dialogue. Thanks to Bartók’s extraordinary use of a huge orchestra we could feel that the castle was dark and damp, cold and menacing. Hindoyan ensured that the orchestra did not overpower the singers but supported and complemented them. When the orchestra was given the opportunity to come to the fore they filled the hall with amazing music. The opening of the fifth door with its mighty burst of sound from full orchestra plus organ was a highlight.

The first part of the concert comprised the Adagio from Mahler’s uncompleted Symphony no 10. This was intensely serious music given a deeply felt, expressive performance with the RLPO’s strings in particular showing their strength. The ambiguous harmonies and suggestions of big melodies that felt just out of reach made for a beautiful but unsettling beginning to the evening, an appropriate introduction to the powerful Bartók that was to come.