The Sydney Symphony Orchestra revives Bela Bartók's haunting operatic psychodrama.
Image: SSO's Bluebeard's Castle. Photo (c) C Brewster. Supplied.
Hungarian composer Bela Bartók was a 30-year-old newlywed when he wrote Bluebeard’s Castle, a brooding work of love, obsession, and ultimately murder. Bartók's one and only opera is based on a dark fairy-tale by Charles Perrault with a libretto written by Béla Balázs. Bartók dedicated the disturbing new work to his young wife Marta. A strange wedding gift, to say the least.
It was a delight to see the Sydney Symphony Orchestra tackle this intriguing one-act work which features only two singing roles: Bluebeard and Judith, his new wife (the fourth!). Judith was sung with clarity by American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, and Bluebeard was given depth and character by Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea.
DeYoung and Relyea are both Bluebeard veterans and their familiarity with the score shone though in their confident performances. The SSO chose a concert setting, with none of the costumes and accoutrements usually associated with opera, so our full attention was focussed on the music and voices. Sung in its original Hungarian, surtitles above the stage provided the English explication, although none was really necessary. The music and the vocal gesturing say it all.
The work begins with a dramatic prologue to set the scene. This was delivered from a dress circle box by Australian actor Don Hany, looking dapper in a black velvet dinner jacket. Then it was into Bartók's magnificent music, full of passion and drama.
SSO conductor David Robertson fully embraced the scale and expansiveness of the score and revelled in its dark passages. This was Bartók's largest work, in terms of the sheer size of the orchestra, and Robertson clearly enjoyed the challenge. The musical highlights just kept coming: the stark pentatony; the xylophones and woodwinds chasing through the scales; and the drama of the trumpets and oboes. There are two glorious harps, the Opera House organ up in the gods, and a celesta to offering its rich, authentic character. Then there’s the thrashing strings, played like the devil himself.
At first DeYoung seemed timid, almost naive, and her voice seemed a little lost under the weight of the orchestration. She soon revealed the full force of her powerful voice and her lacerating high note was mesmerising. Relyea also seemed a little diminished at first but overall sang a robust Bluebeard with a fulsome climax as his secrets are revealed.
At 55 minutes, Bluebeard’s Castle took up the entire second half of the program that had opened with Brahms’ sentimental Alto Rhapsody followed by Bach’s Ich Habe Genug. DeYoung sang the Brahms in true, clear form accompanied by the rich voices of the Men of the Opera Australia Chorus.
Baritone David Greco carried the vocals in the Bach alongside a superb performance from Diana Doherty on solo oboe. Greco was a late replacement on the program and showed a wonderful touch for the piece.
This was a stimulating program from the SSO. The three seemingly disparate pieces are united by 'the sense of contemplation that Bach and Brahms and Bartók all express through the voice' according to Robertson. And in good news for the SSO, Robertson’s tenure as chief conductor and artistic director has been extended until the end of 2019.
4 stars out 5
Bluebeard's Castle with Bach and Brahms played at the Sydney Opera House
November 29 and December 1 & 2 only
Conductor | David Robertson
Mezzo Soprano | Michelle DeYoung
Baritone | David Greco
Bass | John Relyea
Prologue | Don Hany
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Men of the Opera Australia Chorus
First published on
What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level