Notes and Editorial Reviews
Dramatic punch and visual variety make this compulsive viewing.
Adám Fischer, cond; Robert Lloyd (
); Elizabeth Laurence (
); London Phil O
KULTUR D4497 (DVD: 64:00) Broadcast: 1988
This is a fully filmed version of
. (It’s entitled
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
on this release, just in case you go seeking it somewhere alphabetically by title.) There’s only a single instance of DVD competition among current releases, a fact I find ironic, because few operas stand to gain as much from disciplined, atmospheric cinematography. It is, after all, a work of many vivid musical and physical images, set in a world unfettered by fourth-wall-removed reality. The spoken prologue (uncredited here, and dully spoken) only emphasizes this fact. This means that in a live performance, there are four important cast members: the two singers, the set designer, and the stage director. The film version substitutes a video director, to similar effect.
Bruce Macadie’s set designs and video director Leslie Megahey’s work are frequently successful, and often striking. The castle itself is a wonderfully distinctive place of gritty, granitic slabs, punctuated with luxurious 19th-century trappings and black-veiled vases. The armory entices and repels with its multiple museum-like exhibits of armor mockingly pierced many times by appropriate period weapons. The garden is more of a natural preserve here, as doves suddenly fly across the camera’s view, and bring a sudden sense of life to the castle. The sudden cut from an image of a dead dove on the ground next to a sharpened hand spade, over to Judit using the same spade to trim thorns from roses she has cut and placed in a clear vase—only to suddenly see the stems redden and produce blood—is a fine effect. There are several such moments, showing an ancestry in the likes of Lang and Hitchcock. Some are visual only, including the living human statues of the previous wives, chained in wall niches, festooned in clothes and flowers appropriate to the various other rooms. Others are evidence of fine cinematography, including the image of the final key, a weighty pendant on a golden neck chain, dangling out of focus in the camera foreground, with Judit’s intent, skeptical face framed behind it. The costumes of Anna Buruma, whether period (Bluebeard), symbolic (Judit), or fanciful (the wives), are excellent.
But some of the easiest things come hardest here, and the doors one would expect Macadie and Megahey to manage easiest cause them instead to stumble. The fifth door, revealing Bluebeard’s kingdom—the most positive of the doors, a display of all that’s expansive, selfless, and aspiring in his psyche—shows us nothing but a few nearby wet boulders, and some wisps from dry ice. Projecting badly filmed black-and-white images of a few landscapes on Judit’s white, gauzy robes doesn’t make the grade, and there’s nothing to justify Judit’s repeated, rapt expressions of “broad and beautiful.” Nor is the Lake of Tears anything remotely appropriate in a symbolic or real sense, but a muddy body of water in a dungeon-like enclosure that negates its brilliant musical depiction of despairing failure.
Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Laurence are excellent in their respective roles. The former eschews the insensitive, rock-like Bluebeard of some productions, going instead for a mix of quiet pride and painful vulnerability. His rich, easily inflected bass is in the Székely tradition that employs a subtle rubato to the line. Laurence has the high notes that Sylvia Sass, in the only other available DVD of the opera (Decca 1109009), lacks. She can also effectively drain her voice of vibrato, something she uses—perhaps overuses—to good effect. There is great sensitivity in her portrayal, which presents Judit as sincere but naive, the victim of her own powerful emotions. There are some brief lip-syncing issues, but these are a small price to pay for the freedom of movement and expression that post-filming to a sound recording provides.
Sound is LPCM stereo only, with a 4:3 picture ratio, and subtitles furnished in English, French, and German.
The one real drawback is its price tag. This DVD isn’t an inexpensive purchase, despite the fact that the opera runs for just slightly over an hour, with no extras supplied. Adding insult to injury, the usual notes containing an essay or two, synopsis, etc., are completely missing. There’s only a single sheet of sparsely worded cue points (“8: The Lake,” etc). Still, for all that, this
is very welcome. I wouldn’t mind a new version in digital sound, but until that comes along in a comparable performance, this one will certainly do.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
This video-to-DVD transfer of Bartók’s early operatic masterpiece might be more than 20 years old, but it still has a lot to teach contemporary opera producers and directors. Its dramatic punch and visual variety make it compulsive viewing, while its straightforward theatrical interpretation makes a refreshing change from some of the wackier productions that have made their way into opera houses in recent years.
There are faults. The original BBC Television film is a little grainy, and lapses between the recorded soundtrack and lip-syncing can be off-putting. The DVD itself carries no extra material about the opera, its performers, or the film project. Even the sleeve-notes give no more than a brief summary of the plot - not especially essential, given the subtitles that are available. And surely the evocative spoken prologue - delivered in English by actor John Woodvine - would have been better in the original Magyar.
But these are minor quibbles. What really stands out is the quality of the performance. Robert Lloyd is a commanding Bluebeard - warm and even pitiful at the opening, but gradually hardening into a more complex and chilling personality. Elizabeth Laurence looks a little old for the part of the stolen virgin bride - noticeably in close-ups - but her singing and acting skills more than make up for this. Vocally and theatrically she develops from a naïve, if rather guileful, lover through to increasing assertiveness towards her final tragic downfall. The diction of each singer is exceptionally good, and the London Philharmonic under Adam Fischer capture the colour and expressiveness of Bartók’s score. Indeed, the soundtrack alone would make an excellent buy.
There are also many interesting theatrical touches. The setting is a standard Gothic castle with pre-1914 costumes. Unlike many modern productions, we
do see what lies behind each of the seven doors. Only the first - the torture chamber - disappoints, with what looks like a disused public steam bath, although the blood seeping from the tiles is a nice touch.
Watch out for those brief, symbolic moments - Judith’s discovery of the wet castle walls reflected in Bluebeard’s own silent tears; the various appearances of blood or hints at violence through lighting; the way Bluebeard throws Judith the sixth key instead of handing it to her as before. There is a palpable sense of impending horror during the conflict between Bluebeard and Judith prior to the opening of the seventh and final door. And the appearance of the three previous wives, together with Judith’s ultimate incarceration, is (without wishing to give too much away) a genuinely satisfying and disturbing climax.
-- John-Pierre Joyce, MusicWeb International
Sung in Hungarian, with subtitles available in English, French and German.
The London Philharmonic
Conductor: Adam Fischer
Costume Designer: Anna Buruma
Designer: Bruce Macadie
Producer: Dennis Marks
Video Director: Leslie Megahey
Region: 1 (US and Canada)
Subtitles: English, French, German
Run time: 64 minutes
Picture Format: NTSC
Works on This Recording
Bluebeard's Castle, Op. 11/Sz 48 by Béla Bartók
Robert Lloyd (Bass),
Elizabeth Laurence (Mezzo Soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1911/1918; Budapest, Hungary
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