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Bela Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle
Kolos Kvats (Bluebeard), Sylvia Sass (Judith), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti (Conductor), Miklos Szinetar (Director)
Recording time: 56’
Decca 074 3254 – Subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, and Chinese

This production has many strong points, chief among them the resolute conducting of Georg Solti which brings out Bartok’s implacable cadences and an orchestral sound that is both thick and finely-honed. Both singers are in decent voice and they look good in the close-ups, Sass with her enviable cheekbones and Kovats with his very operatic eyebrows.

This production was made for television in 1981, using a recording made in 1979. A major drawback is that the singers are very obviously lip-synching their recording. Dramatic immediacy is lessened by the fact that the synchronization is imperfect and neither is having to make the effort of projecting the voice even to a microphone. I don’t want to see bulging neck-veins, but the physical fact of singing is an integral part of opera and it is missing here. In addition, the baritone is stolid. Perhaps he is one of those performers who simply doesn’t have much stage presence.

The production’s visuals can be very good. Intimate moments between the two performers come across very well. The opera really doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, but instead a situation in which Judith asks her new husband to open seven doors in his palace. Door number one is a torture chamber, with gas jets, then door two an armoury, with weapons. Door three reveals a treasury, full of jewels which turn out to be blood-stained. Door four reveals a garden - and yet more blood. Door five reveals the vast expanse of Bluebeard’s realm, a vison which compels Judith to utter a great cry of shock and awe, and here one wishes for more amplitude from the soprano. Following is an argument about the last two doors which Bluebeard is reluctant to open. Even with compelling visuals, this scene fails to be as hair-raising as on the 1965 recording under Istvan Kertesz, with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry. Door number six reveals water (tears) - and number of plastic stalactites, the weakest of the visuals. Behind the seventh door is the most arresting scene: in a chamber that seems to be tilted on its side (much like in the Götz Friedrich Parsifal at Bayreuth of 1982) we see the three previous wives, all portrayed by Sass, each wearing a singular extravagant crown. She is then also crowned, and joins the other three.

To give this DVD its rightful due, it does acquaint the viewer with a work that lacks a true plot and the visual side makes it somewhat more interesting than listening to a CD. It is a pity, though, that vocally and dramatically, it fails to reach the intense heights achieved by Solti and the LPO.

The work’s spoken prologue is not on the DVD but is printed in the booklet.

Michael Johnson




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