What do you pair with Bartók’s Bluebeard's Castle? Over the years, the hour-long psychological thriller of an opera has been paired with everything from Poulenc’s cabaret monologue La voix humaine to Tchaikovsky’s beatific Iolanta to, oddly enough, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the Met’s first performances of the Bartók. Even then, I’d never expected to see it on a programme with Dvořák’s monumental Cello Concerto – a dramatic tour de force of an evening requiring the very best soloists. Despite this, it was conductor Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who emerged as the true stars of the evening.

Alban Gerhardt © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alban Gerhardt
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
This was apparent from the very beginning of the Dvořák, taken at a more languorous pace than usual. From the outset, Dutoit established his absolute mastery of orchestral colour, with particularly notable solos from the clarinet and horns in the lengthy introduction. Throughout the concerto, the orchestra was on particularly sensitive form, with blazing brass and lush strings in the tutti sections as well as a chamber music-like intimacy in the duets with the soloist. Particularly impressive was the balance in the slow movement, where Dutoit highlighted the orchestral solos while never covering the ornate filigree in the solo cello line – a real feat in the Royal Albert Hall!

Alban Gerhardt proved a particularly sensitive partner. While his sound perhaps lacks the warmth and weight for this late Romantic repertoire, his musical intelligence and refusal to resort to tradition was refreshing. He was at his best in the second movement, highlighting the harmonic suspensions in a way that brought out the overwhelming sadness of the work. Most notable was the double-stopped unaccompanied passage towards the end of the movement, played daringly quietly and slowly in a way that was absolutely breathtaking. The finale lacked the folk-like virtuosity needed for the movement, though his intensely lyrical sound in the second theme was impressive. Gerhardt and Dutoit’s highly intelligent pacing kept the musical tension high throughout in the movement, which can often meander.

Ildikó Komlósi and Charles Dutoit © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Ildikó Komlósi and Charles Dutoit
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

No such issue with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, surely one of the most concise and perfectly paced works in the operatic canon. Featuring only two characters, the opera is a dark, disturbing exploration of a relationship based on secrets. In the title role, John Relyea’s rich bass provided the character with more sympathy and ambiguity than usual. Though his use of the text suffered in comparison with the native Hungarian of his partner, his lyricism in the final scene was particularly notable. Ildikó Komlósi is by now a highly experienced Judith, having sung the role all around the world for over ten years. Though the voice is not as steady as it once was, it still manages to sail over the orchestra admirably from a chesty lower register to a ringing high C. As mentioned, her way with the text is wonderfully specific, and she truly excelled at the heightened tragedy of the final scenes.

Once again, though, it was Dutoit and the RPO who shone the brightest. From the outset, the orchestra’s lush colour palette modulated and shifted seamlessly through the various atmospheric moods of the score. The keyed percussion were found on particularly virtuosic form in the first door, and the misty lushness of the strings effectively evoked the flowers of the fourth door. Also notable was the blazingly loud fifth door, in which the orchestra in conjunction with the Royal Albert Hall organ completely filled the hall and pinned the audience to the seats. Best of all, though, were the final two doors, with harps conveying the sinister serenity of the lake of tears. Concert performances of operas often come at a cost, but with Dutoit at the helm that was all that was needed.