Tales from Suburbia [world premiere]
Ma Mère l’Oye – Suite
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Béla Balázs [concert staging; sung in Hungarian with English surtitles]
Judit [Judith] – Michelle DeYoung
Kékszakállú [Bluebeard] – Gábor Bretz
BBC Symphony Orchestra
João Henriques – Stage Director & Narrator [Bartók]
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 13 March, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
A viscerally exciting Bluebeard’s Castle once again proved that in the hands of a sensitive director and an alert conductor one hardly needs a full-blown staging for this most-disturbing of operas. With the BBC Symphony Orchestra on blazing form and relishing the different timbres of each of the vistas revealed by the opening of the seven ‘Doors’ of the Duke’s castle allied to Kirill Karabits’s well-paced account we were in the theatre of the mind sure enough. The positioning of harps and celesta close to the front of the platform allowed much of the delicate writing for these instruments to register particularly well as ‘Door 6’ was opened. The previous unlocking, to Bluebeard’s expansive realm, was magnificently opulent and yet strangely hollow-sounding. The only sonic miscalculation was the all-too-obvious use of a wind machine to evoke the eerie sighs of the castle – something more sinister and otherworldly is called for.
There were superb vocal performances by Gábor Bretz and Michelle DeYoung. She was an opulent and mettlesome Judith whose blind self-assurance was displayed both vocally and dramatically until doubts started to enter her consciousness. She also managed to evince Judith’s increasing nervousness as she probed ever-deeper until the final revelations seemed to sap the life from her in purely vocal terms. Bretz has just the right inky richness to his voice; this Bluebeard had nobility as well as cruelty and desperation. His final description of his former wives was given in tones full of resignation, self-regret and emptiness. Would this lifestyle pattern repeat again? Probably! This was great singing.
The staging was by João Henriques who delivered an excellent account (in English) of the spoken ‘Prologue’ extremely well. His direction was simple yet subtle. Bluebeard appeared on the darkened stage-front with a trolley piled with seven suitcases. Emotional baggage? Judith followed him from darkness into semi-light. As she demanded to release the castle doors each suitcase was laid out (by him) and opened – straightforward lighting and the orchestra did the rest. Bluebeard seemed particularly keen to retain one case from the start, which turned out to be ‘Door 7’. When this was wide open the audience was bathed in a half-light … we were all part of Bluebeard’s surreptitious life.
This was an interesting counterpoint to the first piece of the evening, the 15-minute Tales from Suburbia by Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer (born 1972) – depicting a walk past the everyday life of the hinterland between city and countryside found worldwide. After a restrained, almost uncertain opening emerging from percussion a rhythmic motif is set up in the lower strings, sometimes agitated, sometimes lilting. Abrupt changes of pace, dynamic and mood indicated perhaps meeting a crossroads and choosing a new path to take. Flashes of menace indicated that life behind familiar doors may not be always what is seen or perceived. Indeed, a short mournful theme sounded on the oboe and was subsequently taken up by flutes in canon, and later by the violins and celesta to strong effect. Schnelzer’s suburbia is also a place of secrets and neuroses.
In the middle we were in the fairy-tale realm of Perrault as imagined by Maurice Ravel in Mother Goose. Here romantic tales have happy endings. Karabits and the BBCSO enjoyed painting the scenes with playing of light texture and nuance.