Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 29, 2017

An opera based on the legend of Bluebeard – the story of a wealthy nobleman who brutally murdered a series of wives – is perhaps a strange work to dedicate to one’s partner (quirky at best, implicitly threatening at worst) but this is indeed what Hungarian composer Béla Bartók did with his one and only opera Bluebeards Castle. Written in 1911 to a libretto by the composer’s friend and playwright Béla Balázs, originally intended for a prize by the Fine Arts Commission (it didn’t win), Bartók dedicated the one-act opera to his wife Márta. The music, however, is spectacular – Bartók’s score vivid and colourful – and this concert performance by David Robertson and Sydney Symphony Orchestra more than did it justice.

SSO Bluebeard's CastleMichelle DeYoung, John Relyea, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Christie Brewster.

The relationship between a man (Bartók leaves a number of musical clues that this is at least partly an autobiographical work) and a woman is at the centre of the opera, which features only two singing roles – Judith, sung here by America mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, and Bluebeard, sung by Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea.

Balázs was inspired by the symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlink (whose play inspired Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which the SSO performed in concert earlier this year) and the idea that this story is taking place in Bluebeard’s head is suggested right from the opening. Spotlit in the choir stalls of the Sydney Opera House’s darkened Concert Hall, Australian actor Don Hany delivered the prologue, in Hungarian, which asks the question: “Where is the stage? Outside or within?”

SSO Bluebeard's CastleDon Hany. Photo © Christie Brewster.

The plot is simple and translates neatly to concert format: the newly married Judith and Bluebeard have arrived at Bluebeard’s darkened castle, which has seven ominous doors. Judith insists on each of the doors being opened, and Bluebeard – reluctantly – relents, and each door opens onto splendour, horror or both.

Michelle DeYoung brought a full-bodied sound to Judith, confident and bright in the opening against John Relyea, a commanding yet anxious Bluebeard (he repeatedly asks Judith “Are you afraid?” and offers Judith opportunities to leave). While Relyea’s sound dipped below that of the large orchestral forces early on, his Bluebeard gained confidence and enthusiasm, blazing in the resplendent climax at the centre of the work when the sixth door reveals his domain.

DeYoung charts a different journey. While even against the thick textures her sound carried through, her Judith is confident in her unconditional love for Bluebeard but this confidence is eroded, from the shivering strings as she finds the walls dripping blood to the steady processions of troubling reveals.

Her voice moved across the range with a languid flexibility, her high note at the opening of the sixth door was stunning – the intensity of the moment balanced on the border between awe and terror.

The orchestra, led with energy by David Robertson, was in excellent shape, bringing to life Bartók’s colours and blood-soaked score – full of heaving orchestral sighs, chromatic blood motifs and dazzling orchestral painting – enhanced by simple yet effective lighting that bathed the audience in colour. Francesco Celata’s angular clarinet solos were a highlight while the rising intensity from crawling menace early on to full-blown terror in the final passages – Robertson drawing long sweeps of pain from the orchestra – was deftly handled.

While Bluebeards Castle is only one act and runs a little under an hour, it’s a weighty work that can stand easily on its own. The two works that preceded it in this concert – Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody and Bach’s Cantata BWV82, Ich habe genug – while on paper fitting the theme of love-gifts (awkward and otherwise) sat oddly alongside the Bartók’s.

DeYoung was joined by the men of the Opera Australia chorus for the Alto Rhapsody, which Brahms wrote – setting text by Goethe – as a wedding gift for Julie Schumann, for whom (to her mother Clara’s surprise) he had been harbouring an undeclared love. DeYoung’s mezzo voice mingled with lower strings, the winds gilding the upper edges of orchestral sound. Robertson maintained a stillness in the opening passages before letting the work flow forward, DeYoung sliding gracefully up to lyrical heights above the men’s chorus, the work moving from loneliness to joy.

Baritone David Greco joined a stripped back, small-forces orchestra for Bach’s Ich habe genug, taking time out from his role as Seneca in Pinchgut Opera’s Coronation of Poppea, opening the following night up the road at City Recital Hall. His resonant, penetrating sound filled the hall, against Diana Doherty’s weaving oboe solo. While Greco’s diction was clear and phrasing elegantly detailed, his deliveries of the all-important line “Ich habe genug” (It is enough) felt a little over-careful at times. His leaps in the final aria were wonderfully nimble and sure-footed, his tone a pleasure throughout.

But it was Bluebeards Castle that stood out, with fantastic performances by Michelle DeYoung and John Relyea and David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in top form, delivering an exciting, colourful performance.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Bluebeard’s Castle at the Sydney Opera House until December 2.



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