What a curious performance of Bartok's opera this is. In football parlance, very much `a game of two halves'.
For the first half hour or so it seems a very workaday run-through. Too many things are botched or skated over. The prologue (in English and delivered by Bluebeard himself - why?) misses the point in the score where Bartok instructs us to have four bars of the lower strings before the words, `The music sounds'. The wonderful brightening changes of key for Judith's first utterances don't arrest us as they should. The insistent motif in lower strings as the door to the outside world closes is just four-square. The first stabs of the minor seconds of the blood motif as Judith notices the castle walls weeping go for nothing. The dreadful groan from the castle itself - `a cavernous sighing as when the night wind sighs down endless, gloomy labyrinths' - sounds like a couple of turns on the wind machine (Decca with Kertesz got this sound right). I could go on. Even the rich blaze of the view of Bluebeard's domain is underwhelming. Only some beautifully judged rubato from the 1st clarinet as Judith tries to coax Bluebeard into opening the first door brings blessed relief - he plays beautifully throughout, by the way.
Then, suddenly, it all changes. I can even tell you precisely where it happens. The rising theme on the cellos just before Judith demands the last two keys (6 bars after Fig. 84 if you want it exactly) is infused with a new warmth that has been lacking before. The scene with the lake of tears is heart-stopping. Gergiev's heart seems finally to be fully engaged. He gives the pauses after each rippling phrase their full weight and the silences seem as potent as the music. Willard White is swept up in this new engagement and his repetitions of `Tears, Judith, tears (konec, Judit, konec)' are filled with a tragic intensity. And so it goes on to the end of the opera. The woodwind wheedle memorably with Judith as she presses for the final key. The accelerando up to the point where he finally and resignedly gives her the key drives forward with real urgency. Bluebeard's hymn to his previous (and current) wives and the great orchestral climax after it are heart-breaking. The organ in pianissimo as the castle darkens again is far more effective than it was in full splendour supporting the `musica di scena' brass as the door to the domain opens. The music of the last few bars, reprising the opening, has a real orchestral darkness now.
The singers are both well cast. Willard White is a true bass (and takes some of the low options to good effect), but he has real ring and power in the many higher lying lines. Elena Zhidkova has the true Slavic sound that is absolutely demanded for this piece. But they both only really come alive when Gergiev wakes up. White is truly tragic as he faces up to his dark lonely future. Zhidkova achieves the purity of timbre in the later stages that was perhaps missing at the beginning and in the silences between the brass outbursts of the fifth door.
It's puzzling to know how to give a star-rating to this performance. For the first half it merits, at best, three stars. The latter half, though, is well worth 5-stars. I guess you must make your own mind up.
on 28 August 2009
The big surprise about Gergiev's 'Bluebeard' is that it is so lyrical. Orchestral contours are seamlessly interwoven, passing from one episode to another with an unerring sense of unity. With the current field very much dominated by Tomlinson's Bluebeard, Willard White's assumption of the role is very different. Rather than being menacing he portrays a virile suitor who genuinely loves Judith (and all his wives) and is resigned and disappointed when she insists on opening the 7th and final door. This Bluebeard evidently exults in having 4 captive wives, and his lonely darkness at the end does not seem unduly desolating. The Freudian mystery of the bloodstains, as in all accounts of this opera, remains unsolved. Elena Zhidkova is a true Russian mezzo with a contralto-ish timbre. She keeps Judith's hysteria at bay whilst indicating her stubborn nature. She adds some beautiful soft singing. White's high baritone register conveys both strength and tenderness. If you are looking for the high drama of the piece this may not be your first choice, but it provides an intimate, alternative reading, very much in keeping with the psychological undertow of the story. A fine achievement - and in this case the right decision to excise the applause at the end.