Bartók: Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Sylvia Sass, Kolos Kováts, London Philharmonic/Georg Solti (Decca Classics 074 3254)

11 March 2008 3 stars

Duke Bluebeard's Castle: opera DVD review ( Decca ClassicsNearly a century after its first performance, Bluebeard's Castle retains all of its dramatic potency, its power to thrill and its sensual allure. In the hands of Sir Georg Solti, conducting two Hungarian soloists and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on top form, the score still evokes its varied colours as vividly as on the day it was written.

If this were a CD, it would definitely deserve a five-star rating. The soundtrack to Miklos Szinetár's film, now released on DVD for the first time, is impeccable; I've watched it twice through with the score on hand and neither Solti nor his team puts a foot wrong.

The musical performance is so outstanding, in fact, that the disc is still a high recommendation even though Szinetár's film is dated and bordering on the execrable at times. Made in 1981, it actually looks more Seventies in terms of camera technique (nothing seems to have been done to improve the picture quality, which is very poor at times) and Forties or Fifties in terms of style and design. What came to mind was a mixture of The Red Shoes and the dream ballets from MGM musicals like Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon. In common with these films, Szinetár's stylised designs can be sinister and grotesque, which is very much in keeping with Bluebeard. The seven spaces behind the doors of his castle contain very consciously built sets, all of which include abstract walls resembling Roman colonnades. For the fourth door (the garden), the wall is covered in flowers; behind the first, the walls are dripping in blood; and behind the final door, the wall is flat on the ground, perhaps representing the destruction of Judith's life or Bluebeard's kingdom.

That's all very well, and it sort of works in its own way. But the sets look so old-fashioned and tacky that it would be difficult to get sucked into Judith's journey were it not for the atmosphere provided by Solti and the orchestra. Bluebeard's castle seems to resemble more of a catacomb or the carved insides of a rocky mountain than a manmade construction. To my mind that makes the setting less menacing, because Bluebeard does not seem to have built his own creepy realm. The torture chamber, for instance, is a bit pathetic because it's not held within the claustrophobia of four walls, and the fifth door - the climax of the score, musically at least - is staged risibly with Bluebeard standing against a backdrop of a two-dimensional video of clouds swirling around. Is this really his magnificent realm? One has to laugh, too, at the oversized diamond (and the red sheets used to symbolise blood on it) in his treasury. And the final scene is rather anticlimactic, with the former wives lined up in ornate costumes and moving around affectedly, rather like some kind of Oriental circus. The whole thing is just too studio-bound to become absorbing; there's also the age-old problem of singers doing a bad job of lip-synching to the pre-recorded soundtrack. Ultimately, Bluebeard's Castle is too psychological, too much a drama of the mind, to be staged like this. The score provides the colours and images, which is no doubt why it comes across so well in concert performances when the visuals are left to the audience's imagination.

One can't help but feel that that is particularly the case in Solti's gloriously visceral, careful, detailed, dark, dynamically wide-ranging, urgent reading. Decca has made the right decision in spending money on remastering the soundtrack in 5.1 Surround Sound rather than wasting time in improving the picture quality of the film. The misterioso strings and dolce clarinet of the folk music- influenced opening, the Debussyan organ chords at the opening of the fifth door and the harp arpeggios of the sixth door are captured with a vividness that almost replicates a live performance. The soloists, too are both excellent. Sylvia Sass has always caused raised eyebrows (on my face, at least) for her Verdi recordings, but here the depth of tone in the lower part of her voice and the slight rawness at the top is the perfect combination to conjure up Judith's doubts, insecurities and vulnerability. I also find her quite a compelling actress, which is saying something considering the film's eccentricities. To look at, Kolos Kováts is too much the stock villain to be as interesting a Bluebeard as, say, Sir John Tomlinson, but his vocal performance is more than commendable. I love the nuanced delivery of the vocal line, which is very clearly marked up in all kinds of ways in Bartók's score; even though I don't understand Hungarian, Kováts' fidelity to the composer's directions results in a very compelling performance.

It's worth seeking this DVD out in order to hear such a magnificent rendition of the score, an unquestionable masterpiece, even though the spoken Prologue has been irritatingly missed out. But don't expect great things of the film.

By Dominic McHugh