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Bartok

Bartók’s only opera is an intense drama, involving only two characters and underpinned by a rich orchestral score. Bluebeard’s young bride persuades him to open seven doors in his castle to let the light in. Behind each she finds increasingly disturbing sights, until the final door opens to reveal the castle’s secret and her fate.

Valery Gergiev / Elena Zhidkova / Sir Willard White / LSO
Producer: James Mallinson
Engineering, mixing & mastering: Jonathan Stokes & Neil Hutchinson for Classic Sound Ltd
Editing: Ian Watson & Jenni Whiteside for Classic Sound Ltd
Recorded: Live in DSD 64fs on 27 & 29 January 2009 at the Barbican Hall, London

Bartók composed the score for his only opera during 1911, returning to revise it a number of times, in 1912, 1918, and 1921. He was prompted to write it partly due to a competition running in his native Hungary for a one-act opera, though, in the event, he did not win the competition and it was seven years before the work received its premiere. Even after the eventual premiere, performances of it in Hungary were rare, due to the unacceptability of the librettist, Béla Balázs, to the political regime, on account of his communist leanings. However, after increased performances during the second half of the twentieth century, the opera is now regarded as a key work in Bartók’s output.

The story begins in near darkness in the hall of Bluebeard’s Castle. Judith tries to overcome Bluebeard’s resistance to opening the seven doors of the castle, which guard his private secrets, in order to let light into the gloom. As each door is opened, the initial scene that is presented is eventually shown to be tainted by blood. Despite Bluebeard’s pleas for her to desist, Judith’s resolve to see all becomes firmer, eventually opening the sixth door on to a lake formed by tears, a scene, at last, not shadowed by the blood that she senses comes from his murdered wives. When the last chamber is opened, Judith is confronted by Bluebeard’s previous three wives in resplendent dress. At this, she is praised by Bluebeard as his fourth wife, and, under the weight of her jewellery, is pulled into the chamber with the others as the castle returns to darkness.

Based on the 17th-century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Balázs’s libretto is rich in symbolism and plots the course of Judith’s persistence in revealing the inner landscape of Duke Bluebeard’s tortured soul. Despite only having two characters, the opera contains astonishing theatrical power. The influences of Richard Strauss (who also wrote a one-act opera, Elektra) and Claude Debussy are apparent in the harmonies and textures Bartók employs to conjure up the world of Bluebeard and his castle. His command of atmosphere is extraordinary: as each of the doors of the castle is opened, the rooms or worlds revealed are captured in startlingly evocative orchestral colours, before the music becomes corrupted by the presence of the blood of his former wives, represented in the music by a harsh minor second. Upon opening the fifth door to Bluebeard’s vast and beautiful kingdom, the orchestral plays a procession of clear, loud, major chords, reinforced by the brass section in full flow, and from this point, there is a gradual decline towards darkness and quiet.

Critically acclaimed at its release, this performance is led by Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova, and the incomparable Sir Willard White, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra and under the baton of the great opera conductor Valery Gergiev.

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