Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Orion [UK premiere]
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle [sung in Hungarian]

Prologue – Mátyás Sárkösi
Judith – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Bluebeard – John Tomlinson

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 7 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

An interesting programme mixing Kaija Saariaho’s large-scale symphonic piece Orion, inspired by the myth and the constellation of Orion in a night-time sky, and Bartók’s operatic masterpiece telling the tale of the sinister Bluebeard and the secrets of his castle.

Saariaho’s Orion was here receiving its UK premiere having been first heard in Cleveland in January 2003. The first movement, ‘Memento mori’, opens with a sustained and brooding orchestral foundation with a repeating chime-like motif ringing out over the top; Saariaho’s individual and distinctive sound-world pervaded the hall. This chime set the pulse for the movement, although the music also retained a timeless and expansive feeling appropriate to the work’s inspiration. Despite the huge forces the piece deploys, Saariaho builds the tension and volume in an economic fashion towards an exciting moment of release as the organ enters the fray; the strings, then the rest of the orchestra outline and elaborate the movement’s thematic material. This development becomes more complex until an abrupt halt, a loud chord the slowly echoed into the hall.

Without much adieu, and therefore time for coughs to disrupt the atmosphere, Jukka-Pekka Saraste launched into the elegiac opening of the second movement, a slow and haunting melody first voiced on a piccolo before being passed around various other solo instruments, predominantly woodwind. As ever the principal players pulled out all the stops for their ‘star-turns, the rest of the BBCSO providing a whispered and tense accompaniment. A very beautiful and spiritual movement this, contrasting with the rather frenetic third section entitled ‘Hunter’ notable for repeated downward helter-skelter scale-work, although punctuated by moments of stillness and mellowing of the tempo. Gradually a chime motif breaks in, perhaps intended to mirror that of the first movement, as the large textures gradually clarify and the feeling of spaciousness returns and the music fades to silence. Orion is a very beautiful and moving work displaying Saariaho’s original orchestration and musical textures.

Then came an exciting, big-scale performance of Bartók’s one-act opera. Both the Hungarian artists scheduled for the two singing roles had unfortunately cancelled (Ildikó Komlósi and László Polgár) so we were lucky to have John Tomlinson and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet. Tomlinson’s big-voiced, rather fierce and worrying Bluebeard is a known quantity for British audiences, and as usual he delivered the text trenchantly and made much of his final paean to his four wives – indeed singing this final section with more legato than is now customary for him. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet is a singer I’d certainly like to hear again. Both dramatically and vocally her Judith found just the right mettlesome quality early in her journey through the doors, and the moment of doubt as the expanse of Bluebeard’s realm is revealed to her as ‘Door 5’ opens was superbly handled. Hers is a big voice it seems, as she was mostly able to ride over the orchestral tumult that Saraste and the orchestra unleashed periodically without it losing focus.

The performance started with a rather straightforward and prosaic rendition of the spoken prologue by Mátyás Sárkösi; preferable is something more whispered and mysterious to lull you into darkness before the brooding orchestral prelude starts. The orchestra was on great form, as it always seem to be with Saraste at the helm – relishing Bartók’s colourful and descriptive effects. The dynamic range was amazing – the orchestral blast at ‘Door 5’, supported by the organ going at full pelt, was the loudest I have heard in either concert hall or theatre and was truly exhilarating. The depiction of the lake of tears behind ‘Door 6’ was also finely articulated – a fine performance of an ever-intriguing work.

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