Ahead of our concert performances of Bluebeard’s Castle in Huddersfield (28 November) and Leeds (30 November), we asked legendary bass-baritone Christopher Purves, Kathleen Ferrier Award-winning mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, and conductor Sian Edwards to shed some light on Bartók’s gothic masterpiece.
Psycho Killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est?
Dark currents of symbolism and romanticism run through Bartók’s 1918 one-act opera, based on a fairy tale whose roots can be traced back to the middle ages and beyond. Christopher Purves is no stranger to the dark side, having assembled virtually all of opera’s most dastardly bass-baritone villains in his crowded rogues’ gallery. He’s even been responsible for Karen Cargill’s downfall before, as Méphistophélès to her Marguerite in Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, but Bluebeard’s niche has remained empty – until now…
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the baddest of them all? It has to be said I have done most of the baddies: Méphistophélès, Scarpia, Nick Shadow, the Protector in Written on Skin… the list goes on”, says Christopher. “But Bluebeard adds a psychological aspect that the other nasty roles don’t quite achieve, and all enveloped in the weirdness of Bartók’s sumptuously bleak score. There’s more than a hint of Bates Motel about this drama. I can’t wait to get started!”
What Lies Beneath?
Leaving behind her family home with its rambling roses and dancing sunlight, Bluebeard’s new wife embarks on a quest to discover the terrible secrets behind each of the seven doors in her husband’s twilit, blood-drenched castle, hoping to let the light in and make the “weeping flagstones… glitter bright as gold”.
Highly praised for her Judith with Scottish Opera in 2017, Karen Cargill insists on the timelessness of the opera’s themes and the complexity of both of its characters. “Human frailties and the way they can influence our relationships with others make for an endlessly fascinating subject”, she says.
“For me this piece is a direct look into a deeply loving relationship, between two people whose insecurities are very close to the surface. Do I think that Bluebeard is evil? No. I think out of his complete obsession with Judith he falls prey to the worst game of Russian roulette. And they both lose.
“Bartók weaves an incredible patchwork quilt of sound to describe this complicated conversation: mysterious, loving, angry and sometimes threatening. It’s a masterpiece.”
A vast landscape in sound
Sung in the original Hungarian, with the Orchestra of Opera North on stage behind the singers, the two performances promise to bring into focus every detail of Bartók’s “complicated conversation” in words and music. The concerts open with Janáček’s blazing late Sinfonietta, and Sian Edwards – who made a triumphant Opera North debut conducting the Czech composer’s Katya Kabanova earlier this year – makes a welcome return to the podium.
“The orchestra has a huge role in Bluebeard’s Castle, so our concert performances will allow the wonderful sound of the Orchestra of Opera North its full range of colour and, where needed, tremendous force”, says Sian. “Although much of the opera is written like chamber music – the winds often form a partnership with the voices – Bartók also uses the full grandeur of the huge orchestra, complete with extra stage band, opening a vast landscape of sound that forms the central pillar of the opera.”
Inspired by a military band that Janáček overheard performing in a park, his Sinfonietta embodies the more optimistic tendencies of the early 20th century in the first half of the concert. Like Bluebeard it calls on large orchestral forces but, says Sian, “while Bartók explores the internal and subconscious world of its characters – even the walls of Bluebeard’s Castle shudder – Janáček’s Sinfonietta wears its heart on its sleeve.
“The first and last movements are the most exuberant and impassioned salute to the new and much-longed-for Czech Republic, the second and fourth movements harness the rhythmic vitality of folk dance in Janáček’s unique way, while the central movement is surely one of his most intimate and beautiful.”
Bluebeard’s Castle is performed with Janáček’s Sinfonietta at Huddersfield Town Hall on Thursday 28 November and Leeds Town Hall on Saturday 30 November.