Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor: Sian Edwards
Soloists: Christopher Purves & Karen Cargill
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
This was a perfectly balanced programme, two ground-breaking masterpieces from the early part of the 20th century by Central European composers, both almost unclassifiable, but 100 years on supremely accessible, both requiring huge brass forces and using them to stunning effect. Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta from 1926 belongs to the extraordinary creative outpouring of the last decade of his life; Bela Bartok was the younger composer, but Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, one of the first works of his maturity, predates Sinfonietta by 15 years.
The artists involved similarly made for a perfect fit. The Orchestra of Opera North’s affinity for the music of Janacek is evident from any number of opera performances and the conductor for the recent superbly intense Katya Kabanova was Sian Edwards who also conducted Duke Bluebeard’s Castle for Scottish Opera in 2017, with Judith sung by Karen Cargill. Christopher Purves, it is true, had no specific connection with the work – it was a role debut – but his achievements in 20th century opera are not the least part of his hugely impressive career profile.
In some ways Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is an anti-opera if we accept the conventional forms of opera. It has no action: Bluebeard brings his latest wife, Judith, to his castle and she persuades him, with difficulty, to open seven locked doors which reveal such things as a torture chamber, a treasure house and a beautiful garden. The seventh, which he is particularly reluctant to open, reveals his previous wives, not dead as Judith anticipated, but alive and beautiful.
The first six disclosures are not seen by the audience, only the reaction of Judith and, especially, the dramatic evocation by the orchestra of the scene behind the door. Thus it’s not surprising that Duke Bluebeard’s Castle has a history of unstaged concert performances, especially as the optional spoken Prologue, here delivered by Purves, suggests that the action takes place inside the minds of the characters and audience.
What you get is a symbolist text by Bela Balazs with the castle itself personified, bleeding or glowing, and the plot advanced by repeated phrases (Bluebeard’s “Are you frightened?” or Judith’s variations in “Because I love you”), linked together by a score that, vocally and instrumentally, can be overwhelming.
The fifth door, for instance, reveals Bluebeard’s entire kingdom and a stage band of four trumpets and four trombones joins the normal orchestral quotient, plus organ, to breathtaking effect. At the end of the opera, as darkness falls on the castle, the final dramatic explosions fall away to ever quieter echoes on timpani.
This was not one of Opera North’s celebrated semi-staged performances. It was a concert performance, pure and simple, with Purves and Cargill singing from scores, though she in particular seemed to inhabit the part. She ranged from a thrillingly dramatic top – her Wagnerian credentials always evident – to melting floated pianissimos. Purves, in a more introspective role for much of the opera, was hauntingly lyrical in his final summary of the beauties of his wives.
Preceding Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was Janacek’s Sinfonietta which has to be one of the most exhilarating of concert pieces, with the opening fanfare from some 13 extra brass players – repeated as the finale with added orchestral forces to huge effect – the part we all remember, but there are so many wonderful orchestral effects to enjoy, Janacek’s love for conversations between high woodwind and grumbly trombones, for instance, or his joy in unexpected sonorities.
Even as far back as 1984, when she won the first Leeds Conductors Competition, Sian Edwards was a formidably disciplined conductor, but the passage of time has brought more flexibility and risk-taking. She obtained dynamic playing from the much enlarged orchestra in both the Bartok and the Janacek.
Reviewed on November 28, 2019 | Image: Justin Slee