fri 14/06/2024

Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall

Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Philharmonia Orchestra, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall

Tomlinson and DeYoung render choreography for Bartók's opera superfluous

John Tomlinson: an extraordinary BluebeardClive Barda

Sometimes the most disturbing images exist only in our imaginations - and so the questions posed in the preface to Bartók’s operatic masterpiece Duke Bluebeard’s Castle become especially pertinent: “Where did this happen - outside or within? Where is the stage - outside or within?” The answers, surely, lie “within”, making the prospect of a “semi-staged” climax to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonia Bartók series, Infernal Dance, a potentially troubling one.

There was a “set” - a grey-walled shell and a pendulous shard-like mobile whose mere presence had one fearing the worst. And so the first half of the concert was played out within the environs of Bluebeard’s domain, as it were, with Debussy’s languorous faune stretched out in what remained of the afternoon sun. Odd auditory reflections from the Bluebeard set threw the textures into sharper relief, rather too brightly lit for the softer edges of the music to work their magic. There was nothing vague about the impressionism here. Samuel Coles’ gleaming solo flute had 20/20 vision.

Tomlinson’s cavernous voice seemed to embody the very interior world of his castle - its sadness, darkness, emptiness

And then the start of the evening’s Bartók: the home-away-from-home Third Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman, a sometime Bluebeard of the keys, robbing the piece of its highly personalised identity. His playing displayed all the lyricism of the abstracted set around him with the beauty of those tender Baroque allusions (the earthy acquiring airs) rendered sternly anonymous. At one point in the piece a scary spasm in the stage lighting came upon us like some divine intervention threatening to plunge us prematurely into the stygian gloom of the Duke’s castle. Or was it a certain lack of electricity in Bronfman’s playing?

And so, out of the post-interval darkness came Juliet Stevenson pronouncing that “the curtain of (our) eyelids” be raised revealing… what exactly? Is this piece stageable in any shape or form? Does movement or indeed any visual information add anything at all? Isn’t this the theatre of psychology, the dark heart of human desire? Nick Hillel (director), David Edwards and David Holmes (staging and lighting design) projected, in every sense, a series of unremarkable images – condensation running down cold surfaces, blood seeping through pierced cloth – but words and music unlock our collective imaginations here and our deepest fears produce the most unsettling images. We don’t need to see anything.

But we need to hear – undistracted – and what we were hearing was a quite superb and highly strung exposition of Bartók’s miraculous score from Salonen and the Philharmonia. That score imagines what lies behind each of the doors of Bluebeard’s psyche with such precise and extraordinary orchestral colorations that seeing somehow impedes hearing and inhibits imagination. As to the physical, the merest suggestion of a look or a touch or (surely never) an embrace between Judith and Bluebeard is too much information. Their presence must remain as intangible as the rasping sighs which emanate from the castle walls.

John Tomlinson and Michelle DeYoung were vocally so commanding as to render “choreography” entirely superfluous. Tomlinson’s cavernous voice seemed to embody the very interior world of his castle - its sadness, darkness, emptiness - his Hungarian so vivid and expressive in itself that it became another sonority in Bartók's aural palette. He was quite extraordinary.

Musically stunning, then - and how paradoxical that the single most sensational moment in the piece - the opening of the fifth door onto Bluebeard’s domains - should quite literally have blinded us from seeing anything.


I thought Bluebeard, musically, the best I've heard yet, as nearly perfect as one is ever likely to get it ‘live’. No surprise from John Tomlinson, an artist I've greatly admired for decades, pure joy, well partnered by Michelle DeYoung. Splendidly supported by the Philharmonia in top flight, obviously very well rehearsed, under the inspired conducting of its Chief. A splendid sound-arch from first note to final silence, matched throughout by well-thought tempi. This performance reminded me much of the Boulez/BBCSO (Nimsgern and Troyanos) recording, particularly at the 5th door with its sustained, brilliant high C, the effect of which is so often glossed over and missed, never mind the crashing chords. The ‘introduction’, substituting the prelude (why?) was crass beyond belief, and poorly delivered at that. Couldn’t the audience be trusted with a stammering of intelligence? Even perhaps of having done its homework? or was this just another attempt at ‘deselitising’ opera? I cared not for the video projection either, which utterly failed to take advantage of the possibilities of the medium as well as the hall; uninspired, pedestrian, suburban even, for this most cerebral of operas. No doubt costly. And so I listened intensely, most of the time with my eyes tightly shut, and enjoyed the ride, disturbing as it is.

Helveticus You are mis-informed about the start of Bartok's opera. There was no "substitute" for a prelude: on the contrary, a spoken Prelude is printed in the full score, preceeding the music. It is spoken by The Bard, and after four stanzas, the music begins. The Bard then speaks one final stanza and exits. In this repsect, the Philharmonia's presentation totally respected the composer's directions. You are of course entitled to your opinions of the production but if you found Juliet Stevenson's delivery "poor" then I suggest you unjustly discredit one of our finest classical actresses.

Absolutely agree with all of the above, my wife and I cringed at this production - overly literal and distracting. It seemd that the producer simply didn't understand the brilliance and power of the music. This was made clear by the terrible amplified sighing noise that was meant to represent the castle sighing - it's already in the music, from the very beginning! A production of this work is incredibly hard to pull off as the story is so "within" that we don't really even need it. To be honest it would have been far better if it hadn't been staged at all, what's wrong with letting us use our imagination? It's far far more powerful as the music is so vivid, descriptive and evococative.

The 'sighing' is specified in the score, so Bartok wanted -- and expected -- to hear it. The only problem is how to reproduce what he asks for (from memory, 'a deep sighing like the rushing of the wind in subterranean vaults'...). The amplified electronic sigh is easy enough to do nowadays, but one wonders what was possible in 1917.

Yes I realise the sigh is in the score, I felt that the depiction of it in the production was not an appropriate representation as it really interrupted the atmosphere and the electronic amplification used sounded, to my ear, too artificial. Of this is just an opinion. It's interesting and relevant to consider what Bartok would have had availbale to him at the time - the sound you describe is much more in keeping with the atmosphere and sound of the music, a barely audible rushing of air.

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