Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók (5) [Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen – Duke Bluebeard’s Castle … Yefim Bronfman plays Piano Concerto No.3 … Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune]

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Piano Concerto No.3
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – Opera in one act to a libretto by Béla Balázs [semi-staging; sung in Hungarian]

Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Bluebeard – Sir John Tomlinson
Judith – Michelle DeYoung
Juliet Stevenson (speaker: Prologue)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Nick Hillel – Director
David Edwards – Staging
David Holmes – Lighting design
Adam Wiltshire – Set Design

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 3 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingThe Philharmonia Orchestra’s Bartók series came to a grandly nihilist close with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s outstanding reading of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the composer’s early (1911) opera, prefaced by ground-breaking Debussy and Bartók’s own co-last work (the Viola Concerto for William Primrose was also left incomplete).

Salonen let the Debussy start itself, the flute solo nudging the orchestra into coolly erotic languor. The Philharmonia’s trade-mark beauty and precision of timbre and colour floated Debussy’s mesmerising transparency, given an organic ebb-and-flow by Salonen’s infinitely flexible conducting, that went hand in glove with the music’s shape-shifting logic.

Yefim Bronfman. Photograph: Dario Acosta The same attention to detail was put to different ends in the harder, more percussive Bartók piano concerto. Yefim Bronfman made this eminently tuneful work sound almost too easy. His relaxed manner gave the piano’s opening melody an intimate, long-phrased flow, and his engaging musicianship worked wonders with the night-sounds of the slow movement, conveying detached introspection in playing of rapt spirituality. Bronfman just about broke into a sweat in the vivid finale, the pungent rhythms and incandescent harmonies given their head by his elegant and visceral playing. This was a superbly crafted and exciting performance, heightened by the Philharmonia’s responsive playing.

The semi-staging of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle inevitably evoked memories of the Philharmonia and Salonen’s performance of Tristan und Isolde in the Bill Viola/Peter Sellars staging. Bluebeard’s Castle is so concentrated and internalised that any staging runs the risk of limiting the reach of Bartók’s dark psychodrama, which never fails to cast its spell, except, paradoxically for a stage-work, in the theatre.

This elaborate semi-staging devised by the video artist and film-maker Nick Hillel kept the video imagery projected on to vertical surfaces at the back of the stage, as suggestive as possible – hooks piercing fabric, abstract sparks of light, close-ups of flowers unfurling, a ghostly procession of figures conjuring Bluebeard’s torture chamber, treasure house, garden and the revelation of his three former wives. Things got off to a very atmospheric start with Juliet Stevenson narrating (in English) the invitation to enter this bleak fairy-tale against a projection of melancholy, wintry trees fading to images of rain-flecked stone for the damp interior of the Castle, in a hint of Sleeping Beauty fantasy but with no hope of a happy ending. Above the orchestra was a large mobile that moved silently into different configurations to represent the door to each of the seven locked doors that hide aspects of Bluebeard’s life. The staging was operated with unobtrusive stealth, except for the grandiloquent opening of the Fifth entrance when the lighting shone full-force into the audience and the motif of blood (of Bluebeard‘s past) that saturates the score similarly, and obviously (blood is red), seeped through the video projections. Bluebeard is a work that can suit any number of listeners’ agendas in terms of its symbolism and psychological penetration; Hillel’s staging certainly didn’t get in the way of that or overload us with visual concept, although our final glimpse of the entombed Judith struck something false.

Sir John TomlinsonThe two singers were similarly more archetypes than characters – pragmatic Judith fatally believing that action and change can be willed into being through love; romantic Bluebeard fatalistically accepting that change is impossible. Michelle DeYoung was superb in her generous, perceptive performance, and especially moving as her terror mounts after the opening of the Sixth Door (the lake of tears). Her vibrant soprano soared, seduced and pleaded in some glorious singing, with a thoroughly assimilated grasp of Bartók’s lyrical vocal writing. She was compelling. John Tomlinson, a seasoned Bluebeard, was at his typically inimitable best, even if his habit of moving up to a note is now inseparable from his style. His eloquent and minimal acting told us all we needed to know about the universal tragedy and isolation of Bluebeard; he produced baleful and impressive volumes of sound for the overwhelming vision of his domain in the Fifth Door, and he still had huge reserves of power for Bluebeard’s outpouring of melody in praise of his three, now four, wives. He was, as he has been for a long time, phenomenal.

Salonen was immersed in the score, to the extent that there were moments of near-stasis (the performance lasted more than 70 minutes, compared with the norm of around 60), but the Philharmonia’s sensational playing caught the moods and beauties of this heroically depressing, life-enhancing downer of an opera.

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