Few operas are as enigmatic as Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Concerned more with the psychological interplay between two characters, Bluebeard and his latest wife, Judith, than developing a linear narrative, it’s a 60-minute exploration of psychosis, the delving into a psychopath’s mind, and the unexplained fascination that Judith has for such a damaged individual.
We know little about the motivation behind either character before the opera begins, although we’re immediately drawn into their dysfunctional world of metaphor and symbolism as a narration, here delivered eloquently by director Jaoa Enriques in English, introduces the opera, tantalisingly making the audience aware that what we’re about to witness is a story in which anything can happen; where we should expect the unexpected.
Enriques had devised a simple, yet powerful semi-staging which reflects the ambiguity and complexities of the piece. The action was confined to a forestage, the only props a luggage trolley and seven suitcases, which Judith unlocked one by one. With evocative lighting, committed performances from both protagonists and coruscating playing from the BBC SO under the impassioned baton of Kirill Karabits, this was as engrossing and thrilling a performance of Bartok’s opera as any I’ve encountered.
Karabits’ pacing of the hour-long work was masterly, and every detail of Bartok’s unique orchestral palette shone through the dense scoring. In Michelle DeYoung and Gabor Bretz we had an ideal pair of protagonists. Her long association with the role of Judith told in every bar, and her emotional journey from ingénue to a woman resigned to her fate was brilliantly etched and aligned to impassioned, edge-of-the seat vocalism.
Her Bluebeard was the young Hungarian baritone Gabor Bretz. Not only was it a joy to hear a native-speaker sing the libretto with such immediacy, but his youth and imposing stage presence shed new light on the character. In recent years we’ve become accustomed to older singers taking on Bluebeard’s mantle, and invariably their interpretations have veered towards the world-weary and sung in grizzled tones, so to hear Bartok’s vocal lines inflected with such a virile, young voice forced one to re-examine the role itself.
The concert began with a world premiere from 43-year-old Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer, entitled Tales from Suburbia. Its fifteen minutes revealed a score punctuated with telling effects, no more so than the pounding dance-like percussive rhythms of the central section that reminded this particular listener of Ades’ Asyla. To round off the first half we were treated to an engaging performance of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, which Karabits handled with delicacy, drawing a nuanced performance from the members of the BBC SO.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.