The thought of this work is intimidating to many prospective listeners. Bartok's achievement as a composer of soaring late romantic melodies and exotic harmony is sometimes eclipsed by his more angular and abrasive modernist works. Devotees of conventional opera may be perturbed by the prospect of a through-composed 60 minute duet without a single recognizable aria. Lovers of wobbly tenor and soprano crescendos may balk at a work written entirely in a dark and low register (indeed it is sometimes performed by a bass and a contralto, memorably so by the warm-hearted husband-and-wife operatic team of Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig).
The answer to those interested but nervous prospective purchasers is, listen without prejudice. The subject matter is at least superficially dark and stark. There are no comforting romantic arias to listen to as you cuddle down in your gondola, but this single CD is crammed with more truth and beauty (not to mention honest romanticism) than a shelf-full of Puccini-esque warbling. From the opening (rarely performed) spoken verse prelude through to the last resigned chord, this work is never anything but rivetting.
Part of the secret is the libretto (which is worth following in translation for the first few spins of the CD). As arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, Bartok only found one libretto in his entire career that was strong and original enough to get his creative juices flowing. It tells the story, shoe-horned into a single hour-long conversation replayed in real time, of how a curious and provocative young bride discovers the obsessions and emotional baggage of the older man she has just married. In doing so, she navigates Everywoman's journey into married life, pre-figuring the familiarisation, the taking-for-granted, and finally the peaceful acceptance that mark successful co-habitation.
Thus far from being depressing, the fundamental message is uplifting. The drama and tragedy of this awesome composition are woven around the loss of freedom and romantic idealism that is the acceptable price to pay for a long-term committed relationship - a worthy message in an era where prospective couples are often doomed by a reluctance to make mutual concessions.
The voices, the orchestral textures, and the snippets of half-formed melody that morph smoothly from one to the next, are simply devastating. La Norman shows the tonal beauty, dramatic creativity and the discipline of a born liedersinger throughout. Polgar is if possible even more awesome, perhaps through being more comfortable singing in Hungarian rather than from any greater affinity with the music itself. But the real architect of this performance is naturally Boulez, and his real achievement seems to be in his architectural grasp, more even than his astonishing sonic and textural mastery.
Architecture is the crux of this composition. The entire narrative thread is provided by the exploration of locked rooms in a gothic castle. In an opera usually performed in a stylised set with little in the way of physical props, the music has to represent everything: the rooms, the walls, the doors, the windows, the view out of the windows, the objects in the rooms . . . all of which carry a symbolic meaning. The spaces, the silences, the loud/soft dynamics, are essential.
Boulez, the two singers and the Chicagoans are more than up to all this. The digital production sparkles. The packaging is excellent. Unreservedly recommended.