Review by Oakland December 2, 2006 (12 of 13 found this review helpful)
|I never thought I would be writing comments on an opera recording! Especially an opera whose music, while utterly transporting and at times, chillingly explosive, is set to a plot that is both macabre and even psychopathic. But on one level this recording may be just what an opera novice calls for. It’s performed in a single act, with just two singers, a bass (Laszlo Polgar) and a mezzo-soprano (Lldiko Komlosi), and lasts less than an hour. But for me this composition is no lightweight. What Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” may lack in length it more than makes up with *immense* strength and beautifully complex music that provides a sculptured depiction of the scenario that unfolds before you.
But let me digress. I don’t know why I bought this disc. Frankly, I don’t even recall buying it. (Actually, I now remember buying it at Fry’s on a whim). I probably was not aware that it was an opera. I am not an opera fan (although I do have an open mind), and I don’t find the storyline the least bit palatable. Plus this SACD is from Philips and I have only recently begun to recover from the terrible experience I had with Gergiev’s “Sheherazade” several years ago. “Bluebeard’s Castle” was just in a stack of unopened SACD’s. But what the heck, I’ve always loved Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, so I decided to give Bluebeard a spin.
“Bluebeard’s Castle”, for me, gets off to an inauspicious start, the first track being a dialog preface spoken in Hungarian by the Budapest Festival Orchestra conductor, Ivan Fischer. I had not yet opened the liner notes and the dialog was completely unexpected and not pleasing to the ear. Had it not been for the fact that I recently broke my leg (on the road to full recovery, thank you) and was not able to get up with facility I would have saved “Bluebeard’s Castle” for another day (probably in the far distant future). But as it was I decided to tough it out. I began to thumb through the liner notes of the plot, that I initially found loathsome. We’re talking about a dark, dank, grim castle that has 7 seven doors behind which ghastly things have happened.
But almost immediately the beauty and later the power of the music, vocals and orchestra, begins to “neutralize” and then later “glorify” the libretto. And in the end, while certainly dazed and perhaps saddened by the turn of events the music succeeds remarkably in portraying an almost (not quite) sympathetic understanding of what has occurred and why.
The castle (and its inhabitants), while invariably shrouded in mystery and unrelenting gloom, is nevertheless an amazingly eclectic domicile, with stunningly picturesque vistas and is clearly in a great location (smile). Bartok’s music eloquently and *beautifully*, describes it in vivid detail. And on several occasions it is done with explosive orchestral climaxes whose sheer power and weight rival, if not surpass, any found in Mahler’s 6th or Prokofiev’s 5th. I have learned recently from the Living Stereo opera series that there is no shortage of smashing orchestral fortissimos (or X rated plots for that matter) in the world of opera. (Try the Strauss “Salome” and “Elektra” for starters). But the Bartok’s “Bluebeard Castle” takes it to a new and startling level, even factoring in that the Living Stereo recordings are 50+ years old. The opening of the 5th door is accompanied by an unmitigated, orchestral slam-dunk for the ages, a real rim shaker. (Do a system check to ensure that your components can handle the workload).
The music with an infinite palette of interwoven textures transports the listener just slightly above the fray, so as to provide a vivid bird’s eye view of the shocking scenes being described, but not actually being immersed in it; out of harms way so to speak. Some might argue that Fischer’s approach might distance the listener from the unrelieved suffering unfolding before you and that a sense of tension or danger is lost. Well, I for one didn’t want to be any closer to these scenes of piercing misery . It was chilling enough.
All the while the two voices, the bass and the mezzo-soprano, are in fine form and beautifully and dramatically portray the libretto content and music. I think the bass is supurb, but to be fair his role seems less demanding than that of the heroine. The mezzo-soprano seems to have a more difficult task and gives a fine performance although in the beginning once or twice she seems on the edge of her range.
With respect to the libretto I found it essential to follow along the first couple of times I listened to this disc. Although, I found Ivan Fischer’s opening dialog (the translation) to be poetically confusing, but it’s not very long and should be taken in at least the first time. I’ll probably skip it with subsequent listening. The libretto of the mezzo-soprano and the bass is fairly easy to follow until the end when the two characters begin singing concurrently.
For me, this recording surpasses, in all aspects, the Fischer/Budapest Channel Classics recordings which I have heard, all which are among my favorites, especially the Mahler 6th. (I have not heard Fisher’s Mahler’s 2nd that I understand is outstanding). But this Philips recording is their superior especially in dynamic range, but is also outright more spatial. With respect to multi-channel, there is really no comparison. The Channel Classics recordings are conservative with rear channel contribution to a fault. The Philips recording include far more rear channel participation, but is still never intrusive. The result is a much closer to real-to-life presentation.
So far I have listened to “Bluebeard’s Castle” four complete times, and I’m just getting into it. For the uninitiated (yours truly)I think this is a great choice to delve into opera. I am interested to learn what opera devotees feel about this opera and about this performance.
Robert C. Lang
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