Bartok: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle


An unforgettable live-concert recording, selected from the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s season of works by Béla Bartók – ‘Infernal Dance’.
Sir John Tomlinson Bluebeard
Michelle DeYoung Judith
Juliet Stevenson Narrator
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor
Reviews of the concert from which this recording was taken:
“John Tomlinson and Michelle DeYoung were vocally so commanding as to render “choreography” entirely superfluous. Tomlinson’s cavernous voice seemed to embody the very interior world of his castle – its sadness, darkness, emptiness – his Hungarian so vivid and expressive in itself that it became another sonority in Barto?k’s aural palette. He was quite extraordinary. Musically stunning …” The Arts Desk
“The part of Judith was well taken by Michelle DeYoung but it was the portrayal of Tomlinson that stole the show. At first predatory and prowling – no one can prowl like John Tomlinson – he visibly collapsed into himself as his secrets were exposed. And never was that magnificently gnarled tone put to better use.” The Evening Standard

What people are saying

"Here’s a new recording that might just go all the way (to sensory overload) … It’s as dazzling as you always hope it will be. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia live in Vienna in November 2011. Stunning playing from them. A truly atmospheric recording that makes it easy to believe you’re in the dark bowels of a castle … John Tomlinson’s dark intimidating bass in a role he knows so well makes Judith’s fate seem feel inevitable and Michelle Deyoung matches the scale of John Tomlinson’s performance … But it’s the orchestra as it builds the castle before our eyes that’s most impressive.” BBC Radio 3 CD Review

"The conclusion of the opera is riveting, vocally and instrumentally, with the live performance giving a real edge to the drama … for Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic on top form this is fantastic." Planet Hugill

" … as soon as Salonen cues the score’s reptilian first bars, just after the one-minute mark, you can sense both a tightening of tension and Salonen’s natural grasp of Bartok’s richly suggestive tone-poetry." Gramophone, July 2014

"This 2011 performance of Bartok’s score is sure to become a classic  … The hour passes like a single breath." Words and Music, July 2014

Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor

Release date:10th Mar 2014
Order code:SIGCD372
Barcode: 635212037225

Disc of the Day: Troubling indeed is the story of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle which tells of a young girl’s curiosity to know the truth about the castle-owner. What are all those locked doors? Why is there so much blood? What lies behind his power and wealth? This 2011 performance of Bartok’s score is sure to become a classic with Sir John Tomlinson’s echoing dungeon of a bass, Michelle DeYoung’s wondering, yearning soprano and actress Juliet Stevenson’s Gothic narration, whispering the last phrases of the bedtime story prologue like a Victorian ghost. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia with a calculated baton, tightening the tension, measuring the accelerandi, suppressing the instrumental flow to a psychological undercurrent, which seeps through the vocal surface of tentative questioning. Tommo’s Duke seems as unwilling to explore his own psyche as his new wife is determined to. Felis-ze? Are you frightened? he continually asks, fearing her answer in his querulous tone as the music sinks ever lower into the oubliette of his soul. DeYoung’s Judith seems as unable to tear herself away from the course she is set on as the held notes burning through the score like lasers. Does she grow to knowledge? Is her octave leap enlightenment? The only answers are in Bartok’s music, shaped here into a language that is instantly understood, but impossible to put into words. The hour passes like a single breath.  

Rick Jones, Words and Music

In 2011 Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia gave a year-long series of concerts under the title Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók. Right at the end they performed his only opera, the one-act work, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. This recording was made at a concert in Vienna two nights after the same forces had performed it in London. Jim Pritchard reviewed the London performance for Seen and Heard and when I discovered his review it answered one question that I had: was the performance a concert version or was it staged in any way? Jim tells us that in London the opera was semi-staged and describes how it was done. Whether the same semi-staging was undertaken in Vienna I don’t know but it must be likely.

It seems a little odd that the opera was given in Hungarian to an Austrian audience but with the Prologue spoken in English. Presumably it made sense to transfer the London performance lock, stock and barrel to Vienna. In any case, the Prologue is only short, after which Juliet Stevenson could sit back and experience the performance with the rest of us.

It’s a daunting task for just two singers to sustain a drama that is as intense as this yet which has relatively little by way of ‘action’, apart from the physical act of opening the various doors. In fact, in this respect it’s an opera that’s particularly suited to experiencing through a recording – or the radio. Here the two principal singers engage our attention from the word go and never relax their hold over the audience.

Once or twice in the past I’ve felt that Michelle DeYoung’s singing was a bit too rich in vibrato. Here the vibrato is just as evident. However, I was much less bothered by it and I suspect there are two reasons for this. Firstly, it seemed more appropriate to the music she’s singing. Secondly, Hungarian is a difficult language for non-speakers to comprehend anyway so I wasn’t as aware as I have been in the past of vibrato clouding the diction. I think this is a pretty impressive portrayal of Judith. Miss DeYoung takes us through the range of emotions that Judith experiences, starting off as an impressionable young bride, eager to please her new husband and to be châtelaine of his castle. We move with her through insatiable curiosity to her appalled fascination at the sights of the torture chamber and armoury. Then comes her rapture at the sight of the flowers that lie behind the fourth door. She sounds properly overawed, even cowed, by the vista of Bluebeard’s kingdom as it’s revealed behind the fifth door but then her insistence on opening the last two doors seals her fate. Judith clearly has at least an inkling of what lies behind the seventh door before she opens it but a dread fascination draws her on. Michelle DeYoung seems to me to covey these various emotions successfully and she is on top of the vocal and histrionic demands of the role. I found her portrayal convincing.

Sir John Tomlinson is a veteran of this role. One is aware that his voice is now past its prime. In particular, one senses that he has to work hard in the upper reaches of his instrument. So, for example, some of the notes are more than a little spread as he reveals his kingdom with the fifth door thrown open – he has to push the tone quite a lot. What he lacks in vocal conditioning at such a juncture is more than compensated by his ability as a vocal actor. At this point in the score he’s imperious as he surveys his kingdom. Earlier on he is a baleful, imposing figure in the early scenes and in the closing moments of the opera he conveys the essential tragedy of Bluebeard’s condition. This is a riveting portrayal.

The opera has a third protagonist: the orchestra. Bartók’s scoring is consistently inventive and provocative and the orchestra colours in so much of the scene for us that the audio listener almost has no need of a visual production. Fortunately the Philharmonia is on magnificent form. Their warm playing etches in the garden scene superbly and the swirls of chill colours when the Lake of Tears is revealed contribute hugely to the sense of suspense and foreboding that the listener experiences at this point. Earlier the orchestral sound at the opening of the fifth door is both magnificent and majestic. This is a fabulous account of the orchestral score and the engineers capture it very well, balancing the orchestra against the two soloists very satisfactorily.

I suspect that besides the collective and individual excellence of the members of the Philharmonia two other factors lie behind their superb playing of this score. One is that they had had so much exposure to Bartók’s music in the preceding months that his style and sonorities had become almost second nature to them. The second is the presence on the podium of Esa-Pekka Salonen. He’s renowned for his prowess in twentieth-century music and not least for his acute and fastidious ear. He controls and balances the colours and every other detail of the orchestral score superbly. More than that, however, one has the sense that he is in complete command of the dramatic sweep of the score, seeing it as one continuous arch from the quiet gloom of the start to the return to that state at the end with every detail and event during that span properly placed for maximum effect.

This, then, is a fine account of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The recording captures the performance very well indeed and though it’s a live performance the audience are as quiet as mice: there’s no applause to break the gloom at the end. The booklet contains a useful note by Malcolm Gillies as well as Béla Balázs’ full libretto and an English translation, including all the stage directions which are essential to understanding what’s going on.

John Quinn, Musicweb International

Sir John Tomlinson’s world-weary enactment of the tortured Bluebeard is variously available under the batons of James Levine (Munich Philharmonic), Jukka-Pekka Saraste (BBC SO), Richard Fames (Orchestra of Opera North, in English) and Bernard Haitink with the Berlin Philharmonic (1996), Some little while ago I recommended the Haitink version as vocally superior, Levine as the most compelling interpretation and the BBC SO Prom as a valuable memento of an occasion that many will doubtless want to revisit. Salonen’s memorable reading was recorded live at tile Vienna Konzerthaus on November 8, 2011, and for those who care about broken spells, I’m happy to report that there is no spell-breaking applause at the end of the performance. I wasn’t sure about Juliet Stevenson’s Listen with Mother-style delivery of the spoken Prologue – too polite by half – but as soon as Salonen cues the score’s reptilian first bars, just after the one-minute mark, you can sense both a tightening of tension and Salonen’s natural grasp of Bartok’s richly suggestive tone-poetry.

Tomlinson himself tends to favour a dry, ‘lowing’ delivery, at times suspending vibrato. Try 3’11" into track 1, where he invites Judith to answer his request to join him; and when he repeats his invitation, he seems almost desperate – needlessly, as it happens, because Michelle DeYoung sounds more than willing. Thereafter, Salonen pushes for some fierce accents while keeping the undulating Prologue restlessly on the move. Tomlinson suggests real menace when he asks Judith why she made the visit (track 1, 8’54"); and when she hammers on the first door three minutes later, the Philharmonia Voices do their bit with a ghostly sigh. As the subsequent doors open, Salonen and his players take centre stage, the instruments of torture sounding almost graphic in their impact, before the pace dips and the sunrise temporarily breaks through.

DeYoung is at her best as she glides effortlessly among the flora and fauna of Bluebeard’s garden, while her lacerating C as the fifth door flies open to reveal Bluebeard’s vast and beautiful kingdom is breathtaking. There’s a very audible organ, too. The final climax is overwhelming because Salonen understands so well how the music must simultaneously rise to greet her and express Judith’s tragedy.

Sound-wise, the score’s vast dynamic curve is truthfully reproduced and while I would unhesitatingly recommend this recording for the sake of Michelle DeYoung, Salonen and the Philharmonia, Sir John’s post-prime Bluebeard, although rich in drama and theatrical presence, can’t compare with the best of his former selves, most notably under Bernard Haitink, with Anne Sofie von Otter and the Berlin Philharmonic on EMI. For opera-in-English fans, the Farnes recording is pretty impressive, too. 

Gramophone, Rob Cowan, July 2014

Recorded live in Vienna in 2011 with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring John Tomlinson in the opera’s tide role, this disc promises much on paper. Apart from a handful of intense dramatic moments, however, most of which are down to the orchestra, the result is disappointing. Its weak point is language: the opening narration is delivered in English while the rest ofthe opera is sung in Magyar, highlighting the fact that this disc has been made for an English-speaking market. Tomlinson and his Judith, Michelle DeYoung, both have wonderful voices, but their understandable handicap when it comes to colouring the subtler linguistic nuances of BeIa Balazs’ libretto hampers this performance. At times, their delivery borders on vocalise, rather than carrying the text with conviction. (My benchmark is Ivan Fischer’s recording with Laszlo Polgar as Bluebeard opposite Ildiko Komlosi: a direct comparison of the two discs makes instructive listening.) The Philharmonia fares slightly better, though Bartok’s firmly-wrought orchestration sounds more one-dimensional than it might, and consequently lacks real punch.

Opera Now, June 2014

A fitting climax to the Philharmonia’s ‘Infernal Dance’ Bartok series in 2011. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle opens its doors once more thanks to the orchestra’s new recording. and deservedly so: in John Tornlinson and Michelle DeYoung the performances (given in several cities across Europe) boasted two major exponents of their roles. Even in a crowded field-and Bartok’s masterpiece has certainly been well served on disc – this account stands out. lndeed, though Tomlinson’s voice shows unmistakable signs of ageing – not too detrimental in this dramatic context, since Bluebeard could hardly be a young man and have got through so many wives – he sings the part with rare musical beauty, never forcing a phrase, and with remarkable verbal acuity. At the Sixth Door’s Lake of Tears, in his articulation of ‘Konnyek, Judit, konnyek’ (‘Tears, Judith, tears’), the Magyar syllables drip with sadness. Tomlinson’s cavernous voice becomes almost a vocal embodiment of the castle’s dark interior world, and it too, changes as the work unfolds: Tomlinson gives a performance of wounded nobility, and his Bluebeard shrinks psychologically as his secrets are exposed.

Judith is, of course, no less important in a work that (as a spiritual heir of Lohengrin) takes a rather pessimistic position on the incompatibility of the sexes. Here DeYoung gives a richly sumptuous performance, with an especially impressive lower register. Yet the orchestra plays at least as strong a role as the two protagonists, functioning as scenery even in a staged performance – as Ned Rorem has noted in writing about Bluebeard, ‘it determines the behaviour and motives of the paltry mortals snared in its sonorous decor’. Bartok’s orchestration, the means with which he achieves these effects, frequently defies analysis, yet when a conductor instinctively understands it, the results are overwhelming. Esa Pekka Salonen may be quite slow in places, but he allows the music to burn with sensuality, and he draws wonderful playing from the Philharmonia. It’s not only the Fifth Door that should blaze; the diamonds (at the Third Door) should be blinding too, and they are. Perhaps the only blot on this recording, and it’s a minor one, concerns the Brechtian prologue, which in the greatest performances seems an indispensable and extraordinary part of the work’s going-deep-inside-the-listener’s-head impact. but most of the time adds little: here Juliet Stevenson sounds a bit actressy in her delivery of Balaz’s narration in English, which may have made sense in the British venues the Philharmonia visited but which might have been rethought elsewhere (this recording was made al the Konzethaus in Vienna).

Opera Magazine, John Allison

In the theatre, Bartok’s one-act opera is a dramatic portrait of the irreconcilability of the sexes. in the concert hall, where this recording was made in 2011 by the Philharmonia Orchestra, its appeal to the imagination seems no less powerful. Salonen conducts a taut, luxuriant reading that captures the score’s majesty and mystery. John Tomlinson’ Bluebeard makes up in histrionic heft what he has lost in vocal poise, but is overshadowed by Michelle DeYoung’s wonderfully alive Judith. The inclusion of the enigmatic introduction spoken in English by Juliet Stevenson, is an unexpected bonus. 

Financial times, May 2014

Thrilling live recording of Bartok’s opera.

The role of Bluebeard in Bartok’s opera is one that John Tomlinson has recorded before. It suits him and the dark grain of his voice, and he is on terrific for on this live recording made in Vienna with Michelle DeYoung as Judith and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The recording is on the Signum label.

Bartok wrote the work in 1910, setting a Hungarian text by the poet Bela Balazs. Rather oddly, considering the subject matter, Bartok dedicated it to his new wife! The opera has a very restricted action with Bluebeard and Judith simple opening the doors one by one. Not much is lost in a good concert performance, which means the work is ideal recording material if the performance is sufficiently vivid, as is this one.

The work is performed here with its original spoken prologue, delivered with quiet mystery by Juliet Stevenson. Spoken prologue slipping into melodrama and then opera quite seamlessly, though it does feel odd having spoken English then sung Hungarian.

Both soloists are rather older than the age suggested by the libretto, but frankly the drama works with protagonists of any age. Michelle de Young is firm of voice, with a rich lower register. At the opening she is more dignified than virginal. Passionate and anxious, if mature, but faced with Tomlinson’s enigmatic yet implacable Bluebeard she has every right to be.

Tomlinson’s familiar tones are vivid to a fault, he is clearly on top form, highly expressive with a strong attention to the Hungarian words. I have no feel for how idiomatic the soloists’ Hungarian is but both are highly expressive in the language.

There is a certain melancholy dead-pan quality to Tomlinson which complements Michelle de Young’s passionate Judith and both bring a vivid sense of drama to the work. The orchestral contributions are almost more notable with Esa-Pekka Salonen bringing out the melancholy folk influences in the orchestra. The big climax at the opening of the fifth door is thrilling, but in other places we have a superb combination of control and expression with Salonen having an ear for the detail and drama of Bartok’s score.

The conclusion of the opera is riveting, vocally and instrumentally, with the live performance giving a real edge to the drama. You are probably going to want other recordings of the disc in addition to this, but for Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic on top form this is fantastic.

Planet Hugill, Robert Hugill, 4 STARS

"“Here’s a new recording that might just go all the way (to sensory overload) … It’s as dazzling as you always hope it will be. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia live in Vienna in November 2011. Stunning playing from them. A truly atmospheric recording that makes it easy to believe you’re in the dark bowels of a castle … John Tomlinson’s dark intimidating bass in a role he knows so well makes Judith’s fate seem feel inevitable and Michelle Deyoung matches the scale of John Tomlinson’s performance … But it’s the orchestra as it builds the castle before our eyes that’s most impressive.”

BBC Radio 3 CD Review

  1. Prologue and Introduction – Bel? Bart?k – 16.33
  2. First Door: Bluebeard’s Torture Chamber – Bel? Bart?k – 4.29
  3. Second Door: The Armoury – Bel? Bart?k – 4.50
  4. Third Door: The Treasure Room – Bel? Bart?k – 2.41
  5. Fourth Door: The Garden – Bel? Bart?k – 5.22
  6. Fifth Door: Bluebeard’s Vast & Beautiful Kingdom – Bel? Bart?k – 6.46
  7. Sixth Door: The Lake of Tears – Bel? Bart?k – 14.42
  8. Seventh Door: Bluebeard’s Wives – Bel? Bart?k – 11.15