Michael Tanner

Orchestral mastery

While the Grand Theatre in Leeds is being refurbished, Opera North is doing concert performances of operas, though in the case of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle the semi-staging amounts to quite as much action as one needs in this work, while the purely visual side of things is best left to the imagination. Unfortunately, Opera North doesn’t quite do that: there’s a large screen hanging above the orchestra on which abstract shapes are projected, not very distracting but unnecessary, and not even lurid. The two soloists move around, Bluebeard mainly remaining seated at the front, and impressively clad; while Judith takes up positions in the orchestra, making a contrast, which may not be intended, between her apparent volatility and Bluebeard’s near immobility. Both roles are impressively delivered: John Tomlinson, who had become, deservedly, Sir John on the day I saw the performance in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, is a grand veteran in this role, and here the unremitting intensity which is his hallmark stands him in good stead. Pained but intransigent, his interpretation of Bluebeard is continuous with that of Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas, another of his finest parts.

Sally Burgess, one of our most versatile and gifted singing actresses, and by a long way the most under-rated, makes a perfect foil to this Bluebeard. Unlike most interpreters of Judith, she employs a range of devices, cajoling, urging, not quite nagging, for easing her husband’s suffering and for revealing to him how happy she can make him, at the same time as she is incorrigibly curious about his past and his possessions. One can see that they are seeking the same goal, but are also on a collision course. Where the drama often seems hieratic, almost a ritual, here it acquires a dynamic which both shows what a powerful text Bela Balazs provided Bartok with, and also how disjunct the music is from the drama.

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