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Béla BARTOK (1881-1945)
Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11, BB62 [58:56]
John Relyea (Bluebeard)
Michelle DeYoung (Judit)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2018, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway

The first thing to say about this brand new recording of Bartók’s only genuine opera, is that it is sonically spectacular. The SA-CD sound is magnificent, capturing every last detail of the orchestral texture with astonishing vividness and encompassing the vast dynamic and pitch range with complete realism.

The second thing is to praise without reservation the musicians of the Bergen Philharmonic. The power, depth and intensity of the orchestral playing is hugely impressive, and backed up by this wonderful recording, this provides a masterly exhibition of first-class orchestral playing.

Certainly it is the power of the orchestra which gives real dramatic impact to this recording. When Judit opens the third door to reveal Bluebeard’s treasure trove, sparkling orchestral detail conjures up almost tangible images of a room bursting to the seams with gold, pearls and diamonds. The still, eerie depths and aura of profound sadness which hangs over the lake of tears behind the sixth door is magically conveyed through some astonishingly poised orchestral playing. And it is through the sheer power of the orchestral sound that the tension is ratcheted up to such a terrifying extent as she goes to open the fifth door. When it is opened and Bluebeard’s immense kingdom revealed, the explosion of orchestral sound speaks more eloquently of vast vistas of (to quote the booklet’s excellent English translation) silken meadows, velvet forests, winding rivers and far off mountain ranges. I am particularly taken by the presence of the organ here, not so much reinforcing the orchestral sound as intensifying it, the pedals in particular adding depth and perspective far beyond what one might expect in the opera house. The fact that, to my knowledge (which is, admittedly, based on a flying visit to the Grieghallen in Bergen 40 years ago) there is no large organ in the hall, and that what we have here does not sound like an electronic substitute, I am tempted to conclude that the organ was recorded at a different location and seamlessly mixed with the Grieghallen recordings. If so, well done the brilliant Chandos engineers; and, of course, well done the excellent (and unnamed) organist.

With so much of the dramatic impact created by the orchestra, praise must also be lavished on Edward Gardner who offers up an electrifying and (dare I suggest?) illuminating interpretation of this dark, Gothic tale of unimaginable horror. I find this a particularly compelling interpretation of a work which, as an opera, tends to inhabit more the imagination of the listener than the staging of an opera house. It is interesting to note that this recoding was made on the back of concert performances of the work in Bergen.

Bluebeard’s Castle (Chandos does not follow the customary English practice of giving Bluebeard a dukedom) calls for just two singers. Other roles are mute and while listed in the documentation with the disc, have no part to play in this purely aural medium. There is also the spoken prologue delivered by Pál Máscal. It may be that the Hungarian language gives it a certain menace, or it may be Máscal himself, but I find his reading of the Prologue lacks the sense of “once upon a time” story telling which turns it from being an image of indescribable horror to a simple fable, albeit a dark and deeply disturbing one.

John Relyea is one of the more impressive Bluebeards around, and has sung the role more often than most. He seems quite at ease with that strange mix of menace and almost naďve adoration of his wives, the ambiguity of which usually drives the drama of the opera along. Nevertheless, for all his experience in the role, here he does not quite convince; his voice has an avuncular quality which, in itself, is highly attractive but does not quite sit so easily with the things Bluebeard says and does.

For her part, Michelle DeYoung cannot be faulted in either her musical or technical delivery, but she fails fully to convey the image of the innocent bride, Judit, awe-struck by the riches her new husband possesses but increasingly aware that there is a dark secret which will lead to her terrible demise. This is a full, mature and self-confident voice, a joy to hear in its own right, but not totally convincing in this context.

Perhaps with the force of the superb orchestral playing propelling the performance along and providing the real drama, Relyea and DeYoung do not need to add anything more, but while I would unreservedly recommend this recording for the electrifying orchestral playing and the astonishingly vivid sound, one might need to look elsewhere for more compelling vocal characterisations.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: Dave Billinge

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