This is a strangely beautiful, resonant and, I found, totally compelling film of Béla Bartók's astonishing early opera (his only one). On initial viewing it's almost overwhelming and the final images are an exquisite - and appalling - finale.
At the time of composition Bartók was still very much under the influence of Wagner and Richard Strauss and - like his librettist, Béla Balázs - French symbolism. For Bartók that meant, in particular, Debussy's tonal sophistication, directness and atmospherics, but he was also keen to incorporate genuine Magyar folk traditions and Transylvanian ballads as source material. This he concentrated into a potentially harrowing hour of music, broadly through dramatic grandeur and emotional progress for Judith and her journey, and a more static, controlled declamation for Bluebeard, bound together by repeating motifs. (The `blood' motif - an interval of a minor second - accompanies the opening of each door, and each door has, effectively, its own mini tone poem, revealing and explaining, in rich and detailed sonority the meaning of the contents behind the door.) And this is not 'difficult' Bartok - that comes later in his career - but rather High Late Romanticism with a Gothic twist.
But then the caveats come in. For this film to work you have to give yourself over to the strangeness, the other-worldly representational imagery it deploys. Given the sheer power; the genuinely visceral strength and emotional weight of Bartók's almost elemental score this can work, and work fabulously. But given how much detail, how much is made explicit in the music, there is a real question about how - if at all - this can be meaningfully staged.
I first became aware of this opera through a Scottish Opera double bill with Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" and immediately adored both, buying CDs the next day - in the case of "Bluebeard" the Christa Ludwig/Walter Berry/István Kertész recording that is still considered the benchmark. Musically this DVD runs it a close second - indeed, musically this is undoubtedly a five star performance, propulsive and ravishing. Solti's reading is finely detailed where needed and appropriately dark. He conjures astonishing tonal range in the great orchestral highpoints whilst picking up on telling orchestral detail: the hints of dissonant woodwind at the opening of the fourth door; the magnificence of the fifth with its deep underlying organ beneath the C major brass unison - an aural magnificence that almost inevitably can't be matched by our view through the door; the eerie stillness behind the sixth door over which Sass' voice floats as the music intensifies to its odd rising harp arpeggios pleading and questioning (Solti here is a master of the mysterious and weird; the occasional sighs and moans of the castle spine-tingling); the almost lush romanticism of the Seventh Door until Judith's earlier question, asked quite matter-of-factly, "Who has bled to feed your garden?" gets its answer. And then a final fading away.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra is on top form. Sylvia Sass is a fully convincing Judith, carrying the stylised acting manner perfectly and increasingly poignant as her `quest' reaches its conclusion. By the end our empathic identification with her is total. Kolos Kováts is imposing and firm-toned as Bluebeard (if you're not in the right frame of mind he may seem rather heavy-handedly villainous, straight out of the Hammer House of Horror at its hammy worst!). All round, however, this is an exceptional performance. The singers lip-sync to a pre-recorded sound track. This is usually the kiss of death for me; here I don't find it hugely problematic, probably a combination of singers faces not always being visible, moments of such visual power that it's not noticed and a lot of time because it's actually done quite well. Additionally, of course, there are quite a few purely orchestral moments.
The relatively poor handling of the fifth door makes plain the central dilemma of staging "Bluebeard". This is a very "interior" work; a cantata on relationship, personal history, trust, and isolation. On one level Judith is probing Bluebeard's mind and stripping it back to its deepest, darkest - and as bad as you feared - kernel. How do you put that on stage? Bartók's intention - and usual practice - is to have the seven doors leading off a darkened central hall. As each door is opened coloured light floods into the stage. Here each door opens into a whole new vista, loosely based on Roman arcades, often crumbling - of racks and chains, or serried ranks of weaponry, improbable diamonds or verdant flowers. If you buy into it this can be wonderful - if not, bathetic, even risible.
This is a 2008 DVD re-issue of a 1981 VHS video - re-mastered in 5.1 surround sound - and is worth buying if only for its musical excellence. Personally, I completely buy into this strange, almost surreal stylised vision. The final images of Judith joining her three predecessors behind the seventh door is as beautiful as it is disturbing, but I can see that this could leave some people cold.
I'd strongly recommend this DVD for its tremendous musical brilliance and power alone. As a DVD, at the very least you'll get appropriate and resonant imagery as background to this astonishing work - but you may find that, like me, you have a film that you will cherish.