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Béla Bartók
Bluebeard's Castle (Opera in one act)
Elena Zhidkova, mezzo-soprano (Judith); Sir Willard White, bass-baritone (Bluebeard); Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Review By Wayne Donnelly

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  I was very excited to receive this disc, resenting what very well may be Bartok's first masterpiece, written in 1911 and subsequently revised over another decade or so. The plot is very simple in action: Bluebeard has brought his young wife Judith to his castle, and soon she is insisting on learning what is behind the succession of locked doors there. One by one, and with increasing reluctance, Bluebeard opens the doors, revealing in succession Bluebeard's Torture Chamber; his Armory; his Treasury; the Garden; Bluebeard's Vast and Beautiful Kingdom; The Lake of Tears; and finally, behind the seventh door, Bluebeard's former wives — among whom Judith must now take her place and also be locked away.

As one might imagine, this story lends itself to a variety of interpretations, Freudian and otherwise. Some commentators dismiss it as blatantly misogynistic, some see castration anxiety, and others... well, take your pick. However the listener may choose to interpret the text, there is no doubt that Bluebeard's Castle offers a thrilling musical and theatrical experience, whether staged fully or presented on the concert stage — which is how I have seen it twice.

Both the musical/dramatic excitement of the opera and the  economy of resources required to do it -- two singers, no chorus -- have made Bluebeard's Castle very popular for concert programming and recording. Many top conductors and singers have taken on the piece, including Boulez, Haitink,Solti, and my two personal favorites, Antal Dorati (Mercury) and Istvan Kertesz (Decca/London), both of which I have on LP. Now comes this new Gergiev, recorded in concert in January 2009.

Especially in concert, the opera is frequently performed in English. I have seen it once that way, and it is still certainly effective, but the sound of the original Hungarian works better with the music, and I prefer that approach. There is a spoken Prologue, and here our Bluebeard delivers it in English, but the rest of the opera is given in Hungarian. I suppose that probably made sense for a concert performance in London, but on a recording I prefer to hear only Hungarian.

I am not the first commentator to remark that the true protagonist here is the orchestra. Bartok's orchestration seethes with color and excitement, painting a picture of what lies behind each door, and suggesting as well the emotional turmoil of the characters, brilliantly underpinning the text. Gergiev's years of experience as a theatrical conductor would seem to make him an ideal conductor for this music, and indeed he delivers a masterfully nuanced and shaded reading, drawing superb playing from the LSO.

The singers here are good, if not great. Zhidkova It is sensitive to the text, but her vocal quality is not exceptional, and her tone tends to spread and become "pitchy" under duress. White's big dark voice is right for Bluebeard, and his stolid implacability in delivering his lines is dramatically valid, but others have invested the role with more nuance and implied threat.

The occasion of this review sent me back to my favorite recordings for some comparisons. Dorati's is more expressionistic throughout, and he makes the biggest moments -- e.g., the opening of the fifth door -- almost unbearably intense. His singers, both Hungarian native speakers, are dramatically superb in rendering the text, though somewhat challenged in purely vocal terms. Kertesz (also with the LSO, as is Dorati) is interpretively somewhere between the other two conductors. The big moments are very nearly as exciting as with Dorati, and he is supreme in the quieter, tenderer sections, even better, I think, than Gergiev. He also has the best singers among these three recordings. Christa Ludwig's brilliantly conceived Judith is also vocally resplendent, and Walter Berry's sly, knowing Bluebeard is effectively creepy enough still to make my hair stand on end.

Both the Mercury and Decca recordings have excellent sound, but I would have to give this LSO Live release a slight edge sonically, especially if you can play SACD format. But whatever performance one prefers, Bluebeard's Castle is a unique and important work that should be on every serious collector's shelf.





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