Inside Bluebeard’s Castle with David Stout, April Fredrick, the ESO and Kenneth Woods

Pricipal Conductor Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra in session at Wyastone Concert Hall. © ESO Digital

Among all the extraordinary forays into the realm of music theatre by the twentieth century composers, Béla Bartók’s only opera, the one-act symbolist ritual Bluebeard’s Castle (1911/1912/1917/1921) stands out with its spellbound, triadic setting, featuring two singing roles alongside the sonic embodiment of the castle itself, portrayed by the orchestra.

As suggested by the very prologue of Béla Balász’s multi-layered libretto, the dream-like dramaturgy is rooted in a hall of mirrors between the stage and the mind. With minimal stage action indicated, Bluebeard’s Castle is ideally suited for concertante settings, as the riveting online production by the English Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director & Principal Conductor Kenneth Woods resoundingly demonstrates.

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, on 16-17 June and premiered online on 13 August, the production features baritone David Stout as Bluebeard and soprano April Fredrick as Judith. Originally scored for a large orchestra with offstage brass and organ, the ESO performance is based on Christopher van Tuinen’s brilliant rescoring for 25 musicians, revised by ESO Assistant Conductor Michael Karcher-Young.

In its chamber orchestra guise, Bartók’s orchestral narrative is retold by twelve string players, solo wind quartet, two horns, trumpet doubling flugelhorn, trombone, timpani, two percussionists, piano doubling celeste and organ. There are interesting similarities and discrepansies between the van Tuinen reduction recorded here and the one by Eberhard Kloke, heard online with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle last season. Both versions bring out somewhat different aspects of Bartók’s score; the Kloke score perhaps aiming to restore the original as far as possible, and van Tuinen adapting the music into more genuine chamber setting.

Be that as it may, the superlative ESO and Woods team, joined by the powerfully connective duo of Stout and Fredrick, deliver one of the most captivating performances of Bluebeard’s Castle in the online archives. The production is one of heightened intimacy, with quasi-cinematic narrative focusing on minutiae detail, both vocal and instrumental, alluring the listener deep into the core of shadowy ritual.

The game of unlocking the seven doors, each opening into a different mixture of dream and nightmare, is realized with unusual poignancy, with the two singers really engaged in an emotionally nuanced dialogue, enabled by the smaller orchestral accompaniment. In the course of the performance, Stout and Fredrick react beautifully to each other, while delivering marvellously characterized portrayals of the two interwoven characters.

Despite the overall ritualistic nature of the libretto, the two singers also evoke the sense of profound immediacy within the unfolding inevitability of the overall drama.

With Woods on the podium, the orchestral narrative is laid out with exquisite precision and vividness from the very first string lines to the closing double bar. In between, the twenty five musicians of the ESO convey a gripping instrumental tale, awash with elaborate detail, from the glistening sounding images of Bluebeard’s treasury and secret garden to the haunting stillness of the desolate pool of tears. The piercing mood-shifts, depicting the omnipresent blood-stains, are carried of with sublime intensity, giving rise to an aptly phantasmagorical musical layer.

Obviously, those roaring sonic personifications of Bluebeard’s vast and beautiful kingdom upon the fifth door do not come off with equal musical knockout with the smaller band. Yet, the chamber setting does bring a befitting sense of irony into the scenery, as if the perspective had suddenly shifted from Bluebeard boasting to the mind of the underwhelmed Judith.

In any case, the conductor, the orchestra and the singers are ever in accordance with the dramaturgy of Bartók’s hour-long operatic arch, providing the listener with an unforgettable journey. Available for streaming on the ESO website up until and including Tuesday 17 August, the performance is definitely one to watch and re-watch. Filmed with fine, sublime camerawork and featuring well-edited English subtitles, the online presentation serves the top-class performance beautifully. Grab it while you can.

English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, conductor

David Stout, baritone (Bluebeard)

April Fredrick, soprano (Judith)

Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle, op. 11 (1911/1912/1917/1921) – Opera in one act (orchestration by Christopher van Tuinen, revised by Michael Karcher-Young)

Recorded at Wyaston Concert Hall, Monmouth, on 16-17 June 2021

Premiered on ESO Digital on 13 August 2021, 7.30 pm

© Jari Kallio

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