Bartók: Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1CD)

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Walter Berry, Christa Ludwig, London Symphony Orchestra, István Kertész

Bluebeard's Castle (Hungarian: A kékszakállú herceg vára; literally: The Blue-Bearded Duke's Castle) is a one-act opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. The libretto was written by Béla Balázs, a poet and friend of the composer, and is written in Hungarian, based on the French literary tale "La Barbe bleue" by Charles Perrault.

The only opera Bartok ever wrote, Bluebeard lasts only a little over an hour and there are only two singing characters onstage: Bluebeard (Kékszakállú), and his new wife Judith (Judit ); the two have just eloped and Judith is coming home to Bluebeard's castle for the first time.

Bluebeard has fared well on disc, and the Kertész is one of the best, even if it lacks the full bite and snap of singers emoting in their native language.

Christa Ludwig, a mezzo Judith, is convincing as a loving bride wishing to share her husband's innermost secrets, and Walter Berry is a patient Bluebeard, saddened by her inevitable consignment to oblivion behind the seventh door. They capture the private, intimate horrors at the core of the story.

Kertész conducts brilliantly, drawing full, warm sounds from the LSO aided by Decca's spectacular demonstration-quality engineering. Doráti (on Mercury, also with great sound but with native singers) may get closer to the spirit of Bartók's sharp-edged score, but Kertész is in the same league.

The Hungarian conductor István Kertész believed that we should not relate this to the fairy tale on which it was based, but that Bluebeard was Bartók himself, and that it portrays his personal suffering and his reluctance to reveal the inner secrets of his soul, which are progressively invaded by Judith. In this way he can be seen as Everyman, although the composer himself was an intensely private man. Here the blood that pervades the story is the symbol of his suffering. The Prologue (often omitted) points to the story that is portrayed as occurring in the imagination of the audience. While Kertész felt Judith is a villain in this sense, Christa Ludwig who has sung the role disagrees, stating that she only voices all that she has heard about Bluebeard. She refers repeatedly to the rumours (hír), Jaj, igaz hír; suttogó hír (Ah, truthful whispered rumours). Ludwig also believed that Judith was telling the truth every time she says to him, Szeretlek! (I love you!).

Another Judith, Nadja Michael, had a somewhat different more symbolic interpretation. In a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera on February 14, 2015, she stated that it does not matter who Judith is, she symbolises a human being who has to face up to all the fears that she brings from her past.

Studio recording made in Kingsway Hall, London, November 1965

Walter Berry (Bluebeard), Christa Ludwig (Judith)

London Symphony Orchestra, István Kertész

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BBC Music Magazine

January 2012


“Kertész shapes the music admirably, and Walter Berry makes an appropriately compassionate Bluebeard (as opposed to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on DG, who is altogether too menacing); but neither Berry, nor, for all the beauty of her tone, Christa Ludwig sound idiomatically Hungarian.”

Classics Today

December 1999

“The two protagonists are superb, Christa Ludwig in particular...Her high C at the opening of the fifth door indicates that she had nothing to fear from the competition...[Berry] offers an equally compelling, intelligent take on the enigmatic title character, and István Kertész's conducting is as idiomatic as one could wish. In short, this is a classic performance of a great work, one that in many ways has never been surpassed.”

Gramophone Magazine

“Berry's assumption of the title-role — which is beautifully if not terribly idiomatically, sung suggests neither Angst nor impatience. Ludwig, too, was in wonderful voice at the time of this recording, and instances of her eloquence are far too numerous to list individually...Kertesz represents the opera's compassionate exceptional performance, spectacularly well recorded.”

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