BÉLA BARTÓK (1841 – 1904): A kékszakállú herceg vára, Op. 11 / Sz 48 (sung in German as Herzog Blaubarts Burg)—Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Blaubart), Irmgard Seefried (Judith); Schweizerisches Festspielorchester; Rafael Kubelík, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert at the Kunsthaus, Lucerne, Switzerland, during the Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern, 15 August 1962; Audite 95.626; 1CD, 60:41; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
Except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is an opera that is more effective in concert than in staged performances. Like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, it is a score in which the drama is primarily cerebral, but it is disserved by performances that treat the opera as straightforward Gothic melodrama. Bluebeard’s Castle inhabits the world of Kafka rather than that of Poe, and the best, most unforgettable performances are those that compel the listener to seek within his own imagination visual dimensions for the vistas to which Judith responds in music. Who is to say, after all, that the events of Bluebeard’s Castle are not manifestations of psychosis born solely of Judith’s obsession with her enigmatic new husband? Musically, there is no doubting the oppressive, claustrophobic mystery of Bartók’s score, but far too many performances of Bluebeard’s Castle force the impact of the music on the listener instead of allowing it to build naturally like a gathering storm.
Recorded in concert during the 1962 Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern, this performance preserves Rafael Kubelík’s (1914 – 1996) rousingly unaffected approach to Bartók’s music. Now inexplicably regarded by many Classical Music enthusiasts as a Kapellmeister in the worst connotation of the term, Maestro Kubelík was an experienced, unfailingly capable leader of many of the world’s best orchestras, and his interpretations of his native Czech repertory—especially the music of Dvořák and Janáček—were expert. In opera, a genre in which he was active as both a conductor and a composer, his tenure as Musical Director of London’s Royal Opera House saw the first production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in its entirety. Unfortunately, his time as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera was very brief, but his Deutsche Grammophon recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto—featuring this performance’s Bluebeard in the title rôle, alongside the poetic Gilda of Renata Scotto and the poised Duca of Carlo Bergonzi—is sufficient evidence of Maestro Kubelík’s unconventional brilliance in operatic repertory. His affiliation with the Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern led to his naturalization as a Swiss citizen following his marriage to his second wife, the Australian soprano Elsie Morison. In this performance of Bluebeard’s Castle, Maestro Kubelík’s command of the nuances of Bartók’s score is unmistakably refined. None of Bartók’s mature works presents a conductor with an easy task, and even in its brief duration Bluebeard’s Castle is among the most demanding operas for conductors, orchestras, and singers. The Schweizerisches Festspielorchester is not the Wiener Philharmoniker, but the standard of playing achieved—and, more importantly, sustained—by the instrumentalists is admirably high. Under Maestro Kubelík’s direction, the critical woodwind parts are emphasized without balances being distorted, and the string, brass, and percussion playing are laudably accurate. There are a few of the mistakes that are virtually inevitable in a live performance of such a taxing score, but the overall musical integrity of the performance is never jeopardized. Maestro Kubelík maintains taut rhythms throughout the performance, and the orchestral players respond to the clarity of his beat with alert, astute executions of their parts. Though led by a Czech conductor before a Swiss audience and sung in German without the spoken prologue, this performance is as exciting and stylistically valid a realization of Bartók’s music as any on disc.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s (1925 – 2012) Bluebeard is a familiar characterization. Having recorded the part in German in 1958 for Deutsche Grammophon with Herta Töpper and Ferenc Fricsay, participated in an acclaimed 1975 Suisse Romande performance (sung in Hungarian) featuring Brigitte Fassbaender and Wolfgang Sawallisch that was broadcasted by BBC Radio 3 in 1978, and returned to the opera for DGG in 1979—in Hungarian this time round—with his wife Júlia Várady as Judith and Sawallisch again on the podium, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was a widely-traveled if infrequent exponent of Bartók’s opera. In truth, the rôle was not an ideal match for the baritone’s natural vocal gifts: Bluebeard’s vocal line rises often to E4, which accesses the most honeyed portion of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice, but the line also descends to low notes that are beyond the singer’s comfortable range. This 1962 performance finds Mr. Fischer-Dieskau at the zenith of his powers as both a singer and an artist, however. Singing in his own language before an audience, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau is more spontaneous interpretively than in his studio recordings of Bluebeard’s Castle. His Bluebeard is an expectedly aristocratic creation, more sophisticated than sinister, but there is an engagingly inscrutable quality to his performance. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau brings an extraordinarily broad spectrum of verbal inflections to his singing, but the immediacy of his interactions with his Judith, Maestro Kubelík, and the audience preclude the preciosity that crept into many of his studio recordings of both operatic and Lieder repertories. Vocally, the lowest notes of Bluebeard’s compass understandably lack authority in Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s performance, but tones in the upper octave-and-a-half of the rôle are superbly resonant. The sadness that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau conveys in his performance lends Bluebeard greater humanity than he typically enjoys, and despite a few approximated passages Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s is an uncommonly thoughtful, emotionally involved portrait of one of opera’s most psychologically thorny characters.
A great singer earns that designation, in part, by displaying capacities for defying expectations and redefining herself as a vocalist and an artist according to the progress of the career and the development of the voice. Assessed according to those criteria and so many more, there is no doubt that German soprano Irmgard Seefried (1919 – 1988) was a great singer. Acquaintance with Bartók’s score raises doubts about the viability of Ms. Seefried’s voice for Judith’s music, but this performance offers indisputable evidence to support the notion that Ms. Seefried never took on a rôle without trusting her ability to make it her own. Musically and dramatically, this performance is a triumph of a deeply insightful artist approaching a part on her own terms. From her first line, Ms. Seefried portrays a Judith who is both perceptibly in love with Bluebeard and apprehensive about the life that awaits her as the consort of such an arcane man. Her characterization displays an endearing naïveté, but this Judith is no gullible shrinking violet. Upon the opening of each door, Ms. Seefried conveys wonder mixed with horror: the torture chamber, the arsenal, the garden, and the inescapable stench of blood unnerve but never unravel this Judith’s resolve, and the pity in Ms. Seefried’s interactions with Bluebeard complements the subtle nobility of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s portrayal. The sheer difficulty of the music undermines Ms. Seefried’s diction, but she puts every note and every phrase—musical and textual—to engrossing use. Like her Bluebeard, Ms. Seefried faces obstacles that she cannot surmount solely on vocal footing, but the greatest accomplishment of her performance is the manner in which she transforms vocal weaknesses into dramatic strengths. She simply did not possess the explosive top C required for the opening of the fifth door, but her accurately-pitched scream is more effective than many resplendent negotiations of the tone by other singers. Crucially, Ms. Seefried approaches Judith’s craggy vocal lines with unassailable musicality. In the central octave of Judith’s music, Ms. Seefried’s voice is more mobile, focused, and beautiful than almost any other recorded Judith. Most remarkably, Ms. Seefried contributes to this performance what so many accounts of Bluebeard’s Castle lack: a sense of genuine resolution. Ms. Seefried imparts a strangely moving combination of resignation and persistent fascination in the opera’s finale scene, and her choice of extracting the drama from the music produces a probing, superbly-sung Judith representative of the work of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest artists.
Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is one of the most powerful operatic masterpieces of the early Twentieth Century, but few performances in recent seasons are likely to have left audiences with this impression. Presented in best-possible sound via Audite’s new remastering by Ludger Böckenhoff, this 1962 concert performance of Bartók’s awe-inspiring score proclaims in every one of its sixty minutes that the opera is a benchmark of polytonalism and Freudian psychological drama. Rafael Kubelík, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Irmgard Seefried form an unlikely but uncannily potent team who offer a legitimate performance of Bartók’s music rather than a reaction to its reputation. As a document of its conductor’s mastery of a tricky score that has defeated many gifted musicians and an example of the feats of which great singers are capable even in music that overextends their vocal resources, this recording is a treasure: as an absorbing, imperfect but indispensable performance of Bluebeard’s Castle, it is one of the most welcome releases of 2014.