BARTOK: Bluebeard's Castle
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BARTÓK: Bluebeard's Castle

spacer Seefried; Fischer Dieskau; Swiss Festival Orchestra, Kubelik. No text or translation. Audite 95.626

Recordings Bluebeard Cover 1014

Performances of Bluebeard's Castle nowadays tend to be concert versions given by symphony orchestras, with the opera treated as a sumptuous instrumental showcase. Listeners who want that experience are directed to a 1980 Boston Symphony performance on the orchestra's own label under Seiji Ozawa. But Rafael Kubelik's Bluebeard, as heard in a live 1962 Lucerne version, is a real music drama. Certainly, even in less than ideal sonics, we hear moments of orchestral splendor. But Kubelik uses the instruments as part of a drama, finding a jolt of decision-making in the music of the torture chamber, diverse orchestral colors to show the extent of Bluebeard's armory, and real menace (not just brilliance) in the music of the treasury. Kubelik gives us a domestic drama in the build-up to the opening of the seventh door, and when Judith is subsumed into the castle at the end there is a true feeling of catharsis. We are made to hear the opera very much as Bluebeard's story, not Judith's. The orchestra players, an ad-hoc summer group, are excellent, with the divided violins in their filigree between the first and second doors, the english horn and the clarinet making real contributions to the story. 

The sound quality is not great; harp and celesta go unheard, the timbre of the horn does not thread through the garden music, and the timpani obliterate a stageful of pizzicato strings. But the main compromise of this nonetheless thrilling performance is that the work is sung in a German translation, and it's not a musically astute one. Many of Bartók's snapping vocal rhythms are gone, with one rhythmically varied line of Judith's changed to sixteen even quarter-notes. On the other hand, the singers are comfortable in German, to say the least. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau takes the opportunity to weight his syllables in a way that most singers are unable to do in Hungarian. The lowest notes of this bass-baritone role are too low, but he has apparent ease in the high-lying music of the fourth and fifth doors, and there is real sap in the tone. (He was thirty-seven at the time.) Irmgard Seefried has a warm, womanly but not matronly tone, a true soprano in a role often sung by mezzos. Thus she is absolutely chilling when she turns adamant about opening the seventh door. 

There is a "third way" with Bluebeard.Let us not forget the achievement of Pierre Boulez in his second recording, made in Chicago in 1993. Boulez's claustrophobic, unremittingly severe interpretation gives us two characters trapped in a ritual, condemned to repeat it, where the story seems continually re-enacted. (Has there ever been an opening of the fifth door with more granite and less grandeur than the Boulez version?) Boulez and Kubelik both demonstrate the primary effect a conductor can have on an opera. Music, and conductors, can do curious things with the concept of time. Kubelik's Bluebeard, by the clock one of the longest, seems short. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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