Bartók’s psychological thriller suberbly conveyed by Karen Cargill, Gerald Finley, the LSO and Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal at LSO St Luke’s on Thursday 27 August 2020. © Matt Alexander/PA Wire

Béla Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára) is, without question, one of the most extraordinary pieces of the 20th century music theatre.

Written in 1911, with subsequent revisions carried out in 1912, 1917 and 1921, respectively, the one-act opera is based on a symbolist libretto by Béla Balász, itself an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s La Barbe bleue, first published in 1697.

Although there are only two sung roles, Bluebeard, a bass-baritone and Judith, a mezzo-soprano, their parts are set against the fabric of a large orchestra, featuring full strings, quadruple winds and brass and augmented by an array of percussion, harps and keyboards. 

On many levels, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle bears similarities to Claude Debussy’s lyric drama Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902). Both Debussy and Bartók adapt speech-rhythms into their vocal lines, set in a straightforward quasi-naturalistic manner, at least to some degree. Given that both operas include very little stage action in the traditional sense, they also lend themselves for concertante and semi-staged settings. 

In addition to Debussy, musical ties can also be found between the vocal styles of Bartók and Leoš Janáček. Incidentally, all three composers have had their operas performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and their Music Director Sir Simon Rattle in subtly dramatized concert settings over the past couple of years. 

In 2016, Rattle conducted Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican in Peter Sellars’s direction, followed by their collaboration on Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen (1921-23) in 2019. 

Two months ago, Rattle and the LSO, teaming up with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and bass-baritone Gerald Finley, gave a performance of Bluebeard’s Castle at the orchestra’s rehearsal venue LSO St Lukes, with safety distances applied and a very small in-house audience present. Last Sunday, the filmed performance received its YouTube premiere on the orchestra’s official channel. 

Even though the musicians deployed throughout the hall, with the brass seated on the balconies, Bartók’s original orchestration could not be used. Instead Rattle and the orchestra played a formidable 2019 chamber orchestra adaptation by Eberhard Kloke, premiered at the Stadttheater Biel on February.  

Kloke’s setup employs duple winds and horns, solo brass, slightly reduced percussion section, keyboards, solo harp and small string section. However, at LSO St Lukes, Rattle’s orchestral forces were somewhat larger than indicated in the Kloke edition, including an extended string section, alongside some extra winds and brass.

Sir Simon Rattle rehearsing with safety-distanced London Symphony Orchestra at LSO St Lukes. © Matt Alexander/PA Wire

These reduced orchestral forces served the music extremely well, highlighting instrumental detail with added clarity. Bartók’s original harmonizations were faithfully reproduced in the Kloke edition, admirably brought to its sounding guise within the focused acoustics of the LSO St Lukes. 

The ever rich and warm sound of the LSO, combined with the orchestra’s trademark accuracy and expressive intensity, perfectly suited for Bartók’s dark-hued score. 

Narrated by the orchestra, the vocal drama is conveyed by the interactions between two singers. The opera opens with a spoken prologue, joined by slow textures scored for the lower strings. In the score, the opening text is uttered by a minstrel, leading the audience into the realm of the tale. At LSO St Lukes, Gerald Finley took up the introduction as well, providing a compelling opening for the opera. 

The introduction muses on the ambivalence between the perceived stage drama and the inner conflicts within the psyche, suggesting parallels between the two worlds. 

With the stage thus set, the drama begins to unfold. Visualized with ingenious lighting, simple but striking video projections and the small ”stage”, making good use of the orchestra front and the two staircases leading to the balcony. In this setting, both the orchestra and the singers were perceived as equals in story-telling, to a striking effect. 

The LSO St Lukes itself, a former church transformed into a concert venue, provided a perfect set for the castle, with its brick walls, pillars and mighty windows. Alight with music and colour, the main hall was transformed into a physical manifestation of Bartók’s dazzling score. 

Within this remarkable setting, the stage action transpired in a spell-like manner. Bluebeard and Judith arrive into the castle, and the famous gambit with the seven doors ensues. 

As often with Bartók, the hour-long score is conceived as an extended arch, reaching a massive C major climax upon the fifth door, with gorgeous vistas of Bluebeard’s ”vast and beautiful kingdom”. In contrast, the music opens and closes in F sharp, resulting in an overall scheme based on harmonic progression based on a tritone. 

Each of the first five doors conceal a blood-stained secret; the torture chamber, the armory, the treasury, the gardens and, eventually, the kingdom itself are interwoven with blood. With each unlocking, the castle gains more light.  

Urging Judith simply to love him, Bluebeard insists that the last two door remain shut, but Judith’s quest for the truth prevails. The penultimate door opens to a pool of tears, while shadows deepen within the castle again. Behind the seventh door, Judith discovers Bluebeard’s three other wives, clad in crowns and jewelry. 

Dressed alike by Bluebeard, Judith joins the others, and all four enter silently through the door, as the opera ends in silence and darkness. 

The dramaturgy between Judith and Bluebeard was carried out with nuanced intensity by Cargill and Finley, both conveying the multi-layered psychology of their characters with tremendous vividness and expression. The tension between the two singers was tangible, rooted in marvellous reactivity and shared drama. 

Rattle and the LSO were extraordinary storytellers, narrating the musical arch with enthralling sonic imagery. The balance between the orchestra and the voices was ever well aligned, resulting in an astounding operatic experience. 

As suggested in the score, the visual element was mainly provided by the ingenious lighting. Merging with harmonic progressions and stage action, the spectrum of light was transformed into the scope of emotions in a simple but ever so elegant way. 

For the lucky ones present at the LSO St Lukes, the experience must have been truly extraordinary. Even in its video guise, the performance carried unusual presence and a borderline claustrophobic intensity, yielding to a psychological thriller at the highest level. 

Sir Simon Rattle and the members of the London Symphony Orchestra at LSO St Lukes.
© Matt Alexander/PA Wire

Stemming from the seamless teamwork by Cargill, Finley, Rattle and the LSO, this was a Bluebeard to remember. Well served on video, the only thing one could have asked for were subtitles. Luckily, several links to the complete libretto can be found online with ease, including one contained in the PDF booklet of the 2009 LSO recording with Valery Gergiev. In addition, an apt synopsis can be found in the program notes via the LSO website. 

Performing with safety distances during the pandemic has made it abundantly clear, just how important those well-made reductions and re-imaginings of orchestral repertoire really are. 

In May, the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko gave a memorable outing of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1899-1901/1902/1910) in Erwin Stein’s pristine 1921 chamber arrangement, followed by Susanna Mälkki and the Helsinki Philharmonic performing Mahler Tenth (1910) in the brilliant 2015 version by Michelle Castelletti, to name but a few recent encounters. As demonstrated by Rattle et al., the Kloke edition of Bluebeard’s Castle is another fine entry to the repertoire.            

Available on YouTube until 1 February 2020, the LSO Bluebeard is an absolute must for any opera lover, whether a seasoned connoisseur or an enthusiastic newcomer. There’s hardly a better way to spend sixty minutes.


London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano (Judith)

Gerald Finley, bass-baritone (Bluebeard)

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11 (1911/1912/1917/1921) – Opera in one act (Reduced version by Eberhard Kloke, 2019)  

Recorded at LSO St Lukes, London, Thursday 3 September 2020

YouTube premiere Sunday 1 November 2020, 7 pm 

© Jari Kallio


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