Review: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Sinfonia of Leeds, St Edmund’s Church, Roundhay, Saturday 23rd March 2024

Following their stupendous 50th anniversary performance of Act 1 from Wagner’s Die Walküre, conducted by Anthony Kraus in March 2022; the Sinfonia of Leeds has turned its considerable musical fire power on an even darker tale.

The Castle That Dripped Blood might be a suitable alternative title for Béla Bartók’s single-act operatic thriller, based on La Barbe Bleue by Charles Perrault. It is a tale of the obsessive Bluebeard who reputedly disposed of at least three of his former wives.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was premiered in Budapest on 24th May 1918 and is Bartók’s only work for the opera stage.

Bluebeard and his new wife Judith are the sole human characters. Both roles are extremely challenging due to Bartók’s complex style of speech-rhythm. There are no arias as such. The sung dialogue between the two characters is almost continuous. Our two wonderful soloists, bass-baritone Henry Waddington (last season’s unforgettable Falstaff for Opera North) and mezzo soprano Yvonne Howard made it all sound so easy.

Wharfedale Observer: Sinfonia of Leeds

The composer created a vast orchestral canvas to portray the third crucial character: Bluebeard’s dark castle with its blood soaked history, its groans and sighs. The horrors are revealed as, one by one, Bluebeard hands Judith the keys to unlock seven rooms. These reveal the grisly secrets of Bluebeard’s torture chamber, his armoury, a horde of precious gems and poignantly, a lake of human tears.

The fifth door lets in a blinding light, but everything is blood stained. This always eagerly anticipated scene is depicted by the full orchestra with eight extra onstage trumpets and trombones plus, on this occasion, the fine organ of St Edmund’s. An awesome volume of sound bathed in the cathedral-like resonance of this imposing Edwardian church.

Ninety musicians were spaced across the nave for last Saturday’s mesmerising performance, conducted with loving care by Antony Kraus. Every terrifying nuance of Bartók’s lush orchestral score was revealed in technicolor detail. The only drawback, perhaps unavoidable in this enormous acoustic, being that some of the English translation was swamped by the big orchestral tuttis.

Haydn’s ebullient Symphony No 90 in C major, played before the interval, was the perfect precursor to an opera that ends in eternal darkness for the protagonists. Here was a superb example of “big band” Haydn, less fashionable these days, but played by the Sinfonia of Leeds with immense verve and charm.