Review: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 30th November 2019

THERE are really three characters in Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s dark impressionist opera. Three that is, counting the shadowy gloom laden castle of the title. Bluebeard’s ancestral pile bleeds, groans and weeps in the hands of Sian Edwards at the helm of an enlarged Orchestra of Opera North. Unnerving human sighs rises from the subterranean depths as Judith, Bluebeard’s new wife, begins to unlock seven huge doors. A torture chamber is revealed inside the first door. Spiky violin passages, muted brass, a shrill piccolo and scuttling xylophone passages conjure up the apparatus of pain. Beyond the third door, Judith gazes at a stash of gold and jewels depicted by glittery harps and celeste.

Unlocking the fifth door, Judith glimpses the blazing light of Bluebeard’s kingdom evoked by stupendous orchestral chords reinforced by the mighty organ and off stage brass.

Judith unlocks the seventh door and beholds Bluebeard’s beautiful former wives. All are alive and heavily bejewelled. Bluebeard similarly weighs down Judith with jewellery and a heavy crown. Slowly, she joins the others as the bride of the night, the door closes behind her and Bluebeard is left alone in the darkness.

The beauty of a concert performance such as this one, sung in the original Hungarian (with projected English surtitles) is that everything is left to the imagination. Sian Edwards’ warm and concise introductions from the stage helped to set the scene - in the absence of the printed programmes at Leeds Town Hall.

Bass Christopher Purves as Bluebeard seemed more inhibited than mezzo soprano Karen Cargill’s Judith by the music stands in front of them. Cargill’s rich, creamy timbre and facial expressions revealed her love and sense of wonderment as, from time to time, she turned around to face her Bluebeard. Purves’ dark and lustrous tones are a perfect fit for this mysterious and unsettling character.

The astringent harmonies and conversational dialogue between instrumental groups in Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta complemented Bartok’s hour-long opera. A huge phalanx of brass included sixteen trumpets: enough to prick the eyes and ears in the gleaming acoustic of Leeds and Huddersfield Town Halls. This thrilling concert was given an equally enthusiastic foot stamping reception in Huddersfield two days earlier as part of Opera North’s Kirklees Concert Season.

Geoffrey Mogridge