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Bartók: Blue Beard's Castle / Alsop, Meláth, Et Al

Release Date: 11/20/2007 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8660928   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Béla Bartók
Performer:  Gustav BelacekAndrea Meláth
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BARTÓK Bluebeard’s Castle Marin Alsop, cond; Andrea Meláth ( Judit ); Gustáv Belá?ek ( Bluebeard ); Bournemouth SO NAXOS 8.660928 (57:45)

The conventional interpretation of Bluebeard’s Castle places the story in the context of late 19th-century fourth-wall-removed realism, despite the mythic quality of the Read more narrative. Bluebeard is wise and mature, but his new wife is not. Headstrong, she has left her noble family and married against their wishes. She enters her husband’s castle asking to be led; but this desire is almost immediately overturned, as her passion to know everything at once about Bluebeard turns into a collision between the revelation of his darker aspects and her parochialism. She vanishes, becoming yet another memory of a failed relationship in his heart.

Yet I find myself more convinced by the explanation Judit Frigyesi offers in her perceptive Béla Bartók and Turn-of-the-Century Budapest . It is worth quoting a few extracts:

“The introduction defines the stage of the play as the soul of Bluebeard, and its topic as the transformation of feelings within this soul . . . Underlying the entire design of the play is the realization that the self does not know its secrets and that these can be revealed only if the soul is opened—by the Other. Before Judith comes to the castle and after she has departed from the active life of Bluebeard, all the doors are locked; there is darkness. Bluebeard does not lock the rooms so that Judith will not see behind them; in her absence no door will open and no light exists. The normal state of being is ignorance and dark ambiguity in the soul. Light—that is, knowledge—comes only with the help of the Other . . . Like characters in a conventional play, Judith and Bluebeard suffer. But their suffering becomes meaningful only as a metaphor, a metaphor for the opposing desires of the soul to see (and to be seen) and to allow its mystery to slip away. If the opera is a tragedy at all, it is certainly not that of either Bluebeard or Judith. It is the drama of the eternal condition of love, the impossibility of fulfilling and resolving the infinite yearning for intimacy.”

This idea, the impossibility of sharing one’s innermost core of being with another, was central to Bartók’s personal philosophy of life, as revealed in his correspondence, so Frigyesi’s insight makes sense. How would one go about showing this on stage, though, I wonder? How do you visually reveal the inner workings of a not-tragedy? No production I’ve seen, including the most sparing and abstract, has sought a theatrical expression of Frigyesi’s viewpoint. Many have gone further in the other direction, in fact, excising any evidence of non-realistic intent on the part of the composer. This has been done in numerous productions and recordings by removing the work’s spoken introduction that Frigyesi mentions. The so-called “Bard’s Prologue,” it deliberately confutes the idea of a realistic stage, and in its place offers as a theme the essential solitude of the human condition. What appealed to Bartók, however, just as clearly doesn’t appeal to many stage directors and conductors of Bluebeard’s Castle.

It is eliminated in this recording, as well. As there was no prior staging involved, was it perhaps done to prevent the novice listener from being cast adrift in a sea of speculation? If so, wouldn’t it have made sense to include at least a translated text with the album, if not a libretto? There’s none in the CD’s accompanying booklet or online at www.naxos.com. Few American listeners know Hungarian, and this is a story that is meant to be followed in detail, given the high number of incidents packed into a relatively short work.

These are my two strongest reservations about this album: the missing prologue, and the missing translation. In terms of the performance, I have both praise and concerns. Meláth and Bela?ek sing the Hungarian text easily and enunciate clearly. Meláth possesses a wide range of expression, including both the removal of any vibrato to deaden the tone, and intensifying it to pinpoint brilliance. Though recorded following an end-of-season concert staging—singers standing still, reading their parts to the audience—there is no evidence from Meláth of emotional distancing. To the contrary, she possesses an immediacy of conviction and an attention to detail that, combined with a naturally fine voice, makes hers one of the best Judits on record. She also manages the high C at the Fifth Door, though like a number of past performers, jumps off it too quickly.

Bela?ek’s voice is less imposing. He lacks the volume to penetrate the orchestra at a few key points (such as after the opening of the Seventh Door). He has the range for the part, but his tone becomes hard and dry in its upper reaches. Otherwise, he displays a feeling for the meaning of words and musical phrases equal to Meláth. Still, in the end, he lacks the sound necessary to make a thoroughly convincing Bluebeard, unlike Samuel Ramey (Sony 44523), Walter Berry (Decca 466377), and especially Mihály Székely (currently unavailable), in a transcription for bass made by the composer for the legendary singer.

The Bournemouth SO is all one could ask for in the way of color, accent, and timbre in such a work. I find Marin Alsop generally convincing in an overtly theatrical way, with one exception: for my tastes, he too quickly pushes the theme of the lake made from tears of regret, behind the Sixth Door, eliminating the deadening quality so necessary to convey the uselessness of those tears. It is the antithesis of the triumphal kingdom behind the Fifth Door, after all: a vision of futile regret.

Effective liner notes and a brief synopsis are enclosed. The sound is excellent. In short, an interesting and emotionally powerful new recording of Bluebeard’s Castle , with some significant reservations. If you can find a good translation of the libretto, this should make an attractive first exposure to one of the glories of 20th-century opera, and a relatively inexpensive one too. Meanwhile, let’s hope that Sebastian/Székely/Palankay will come back into print soon.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Bluebeard's Castle, Op. 11/Sz 48 by Béla Bartók
Performer:  Gustav Belacek (Bass), Andrea Meláth (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Marin Alsop
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911/1918; Budapest, Hungary 

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