Bluebeard’s Castle, Hungarian State Opera, Budapest
By Shirley Apthorp
Published: October 20 2009
Is Duke Bluebeard a misogynistic murderer, or merely a misunderstood man? As the lawyers say: it all depends. Hungary’s State Opera solves the problem by performing Bartók’s one-act opera twice, once before and once after the interval, in a staging that offers two different standpoints. The solution is not quite as novel as it seems. Budapest follows a trend already set in Brussels and Frankfurt, removing the question of which opera to pair with Bluebeard and giving listeners the chance to delve deeper into Bartók’s flinty, dark score.Director Hartmut Schörghofer presents the first half as symbolic reading, the second as psychological account, with Bluebeard respectively strong and weak. The concept, ostensibly viewing the work from the different perspectives of male and female, is neither legible nor revelatory enough quite to justify this double take – at the end of the evening, we are still not quite sure why we’ve been shown the work twice.
Still, Schörghofer and his video artist associates from the ubiquitous FettFilm come up with occasionally strong images, and both readings keep the momentum going well. The second half, where Judit is a vampish bitch asking too many questions of her anguished businessman lover, works better than the first, in which she is a pale victim. But both extremes lose the ambiguity that makes the piece so fascinating.
The main joy is that of hearing this work in this place. Conductor Adám Fischer’s take on the score is everything that Schörghofer’s staging is not – gripping, radical, raw and packed with profound insights. Fischer pares back and opens out the orchestral sound, with fine control and spectacularly gaudy effects. And in Bálint Szabó and Viktória Vizin, he has a strong and articulate cast. Vizin has charisma and animal power as the ill-fated Judit. Though Szabó cannot match her vocal power in a part that sits slightly too high for his voice, he brings a rich expressive power to his role.
This season marks the Hungarian State Opera’s 125th anniversary, an occasion celebrated by the company with a good sense of balance between pride in the history of one of Europe’s most sumptuously beautiful historic houses and solid understanding of the need to look forward.