I grew up on regular helpings of Barbe Bleu or Bluebeard as a child, the chilling, grotesque tale of the serial killer who somehow was supposed to appeal to young French minds – together with other delightful tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood. So, as I headed to the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday for Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s version of the Charles Perrault fairy-tale, I was unprepared for the ensuing crush that I developed for Bluebeard. Although, it might have something to do with a sensuous Canadian bass-baritone and the bewitching conducting and playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
The evening started with a sampling of Joseph Hadyn by way of his Symphony No. 90 in C Major, created for the composer’s French patron in 1788. It’s a piece which tantalises and teases, in parts muted and melancholic and then erupting into joy and fanfare. You can just picture the swish of Parisian paniers and silk frocks with each note. To those in the know, the Finale contains a joke, courtesy of Haydn. To those who aren’t, oh well: the laugh is on you.
Then onto the darker, Bluebeard’s Castle. Bartók’s only opera is a one act psychological thriller starring just two protagonists: Bluebeard and his wife, Judith. The rhythm is based on Hungarian folk ballads. The libretto is by another Béla but it’s Balázs this time. It was composed in 1911 but only performed for the first time in 1918. Performances were rare in Hungary due to Balázs’s communist tendencies.
Conductor Edward Gardner and his thrilling London Philharmonic Orchestra were joined by John Relyea as Bluebeard and Ildikó Komlósi, the Hungarian mezzo-soprano, as Judith. The latter two are no strangers to Bartók and his Bluebeard: Relyea performed in it recently at the Opéra National for Paris; Komlósi sang the role of Judith at the Teatro alla Scala.
So what’s in a fairy-tale cum horror story plot? We begin with an electrifying spoken prologue, a Hungarian Vincent Price sound-alike, after which Bluebeard arrives at his castle with his new wife, Judith. This is not a serial killer Bluebeard, but one who seems full of self-doubt. As they step into the weeping, sighing castle, he entreats her not to open the seven doors before her. In an opera which is all about light and dark, she insists on opening them.
She starts with Bluebeard’s torture chamber, then moves onto his armoury and treasury, all clothed in blood. Bluebeard’s secret garden is behind door four, his kingdom behind five, and a lake of tears behind door six. Finally, as Bluebeard starts to speak to his wife in the past tense, door seven is opened, revealing three of his previous wives. I was relieved to see that unlike Perrault’s version, Bluebeard’s butchered wives are not hanging by hooks in a dungeon, but seem to be alive and well, if not presumably a little unhappily ensconced together in their final resting place. Judith is doomed to join the three others, leaving Bluebeard and his doomed soul behind.
As you would expect at the Royal Festival Hall, there is no staging. But this performance delivers hair-raising dramatic punch. Just when you think it can’t get more electrifying, musical fireworks erupt when eight brass players join the Herculean orchestra for ten minutes of harmonic fanfare.
There is something tender and seductive about Relyea’s version of Bluebeard, a Dracula, Beauty and the Beast and Phantom of the Opera rolled into one. He owns the stage, a towering giant of a man with a rich, dark and foreboding mahogany voice. No stranger to these shores, this Canadian singer combines chilling coldness with deeply expressive and beautifully sung phrases.
Meanwhile Komlosi treats us to an interpretation of Judith as a brave, fearless and seductive woman. Hungarian by birth, this acclaimed mezzo commanded her role with a mesmerising performance of dark, penetrative enquiry. Now in her 60’s, she is still of ample voice and blows the roof off with her vocal power in the lower and upper registers which are still as potent and focused as ever.
More London Philharmonic Orchestra concerts at the Royal Festival Hall
The London Philharmonic Orchestra is resident at the Royal Festival Hall, churning out about 40 concerts each season. Edward Gardner conducts in the following performances in 2022:
– Sheku Kenneh-Mason on 9 March 2022 (yes the one who played at that wedding)
– Bryn Terfel sings Brahms on 19 March 2022
– Roderick Williams and Christiane Karg in A German Requiem on 2 April 2022
For tickets and more information, click here
Feature image: Mark Allan
I was a guest of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. As always, opinions are my own.