Darkness and light took centre stage in this concert that placed Bartók alongside Haydn.
This concert from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, was entitled In Bluebeard’s Castle and combined Bartók’s virtually eponymous one act opera with Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C major, Hob. I:90. In doing so, it contrasted the darkness of the opera with the broadly sunny disposition of the symphony. However, in the same way as the opera is not completely dark from start to finish, so this concert and, in particular, the performances of the evening’s two singers proved to be extremely multilayered and multifaceted.
John Relyea and Ildikó Komlósi are highly experienced in the roles of Bluebeard and Judith respectively, and played them at the Proms in 2016 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Charles Dutoit. The portrayals we saw on the night clearly derived from having much studied, performed and recorded the roles over the years. At no point did either singer indulge in histrionics as both performances felt quite internalised, although the characters’ thoughts, and all of the ambiguities that lay within them, were still projected clearly.
In the Royal Festival Hall, both singers stood on opposite sides of the conductor, just far enough back so they could see him. While in many cases this type of positioning can be a hindrance to seeing any interaction between the performers, in this instance it worked perfectly because the consequent detachment highlighted how close and yet so far these characters really are from each other. Judith may be deeply in love with Bluebeard, but their understanding of the situation they are both in, and as a result their personal agendas, are poles apart.
“John Relyea and Ildikó Komlósi are highly experienced in the roles of Bluebeard and Judith…”
Stillness pervaded the performances so that the pair began the evening ostensibly passive, though it was clear that a thousand thoughts whirred through the minds of both characters, and ended it in the same way. In between they did become more animated, with the moment before the opening of the third door when Bluebeard sings ‘Through and through my castle trembles’ (this performance was in the original Hungarian) being the first point at which Relyea became more obviously emotional, perhaps at the thought that things might actually turn out well. In this way, even their physical performances seemed to mirror the opera’s modulation from F♯ to C and back to F♯, which itself has been interpreted as representing a move from darkness to light and back.
Bluebeard’s Castle is a story of someone who is determined to pursue a journey, despite being given ample opportunities to abort it that it really seems she should take, and it is one that the two principals played out as intriguingly as they did brilliantly. Komlósi, with her richly hued mezzo-soprano, suggested not that Judith became increasingly obsessed with seeing things through as the drama progressed, but rather that she had to show greater levels of determination and resilience in the face of a proposition that looked less and less enticing. In this way, she frequently bowed her head low as she typically put her arms across her chest, and with both the third and fourth doors she rendered the shift from joy as she saw the gems and flowers to despair as she realised these were covered in blood extremely well. Relyea, with a bass that was as nuanced as it was secure, made Bluebeard’s precise agenda seem extremely ambiguous. On the one hand, it could seem very straight forward that his ideal was to see the first five doors opened but not the final two, but Relyea left us with so many questions. Did Bluebeard’s prior urgings not even to go this far derive from concern for Judith’s best interests or simply constitute the warning he felt obliged to give, and how much did he push her towards, as much as dissuade her from, seeing this through to the end?
The LPO was on spellbinding form in rendering each effect with the precision necessary to bring out all of the nuances and subtexts inherent in the score, and the portrayal of the opening of the fifth door felt positively shattering. In the first half of the concert, it also gave an excellent performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C major in which the balance between the essential joyousness of the piece and the more austere and hesitant elements that are certainly present, was brought out extremely skilfully. Ultimately, however, the sheer visceral thrill of the performance prevailed, right up until the moment when at least half of the audience was fooled into applauding after the first false ending.
The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording of Bluebeard’s Castle conducted by Edward Gardner, with John Relyea as Bluebeard and Michelle DeYoung as Judith, is available on the Chandos label.