Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Kirill Karabits/BBC Symphony Orchestra – Barbican Centre, 13th March 2015

Gustave Doré, Bluebeard (1862)

Gustave Doré, Bluebeard (1862)

Bartók described Duke Bluebeard’s Castle as a “mystery of the soul”. In his masterpiece of symbolist music drama, he takes us, the audience, with Judith, the naïve young bride, on a revelatory journey into the soul of the mythical Duke Bluebeard.

Throwing open the doors of his castle one by one, we and Judith come closer to discovering Bluebeard’s dark secret. A reimagining of the Bluebeard folk tale with a libretto by Balàzs, Bartók’s one-act opera is an abstract exploration of the subconscious, with the drama played out on a psychological plane.

Bluebeard is particularly suited to concert performance, with Bartók’s vivid orchestral vistas evoking the secrets behind Bluebeard’s seven doors. In João Henriques’ concert staging, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s massed forces, under the lively baton of Kirill Karabits, provided a vibrant aural and visual backdrop to Judith’s exploration of Bluebeard’s dark psyche, here symbolised by seven traveller’s trunks.

The subtleties of Bartók’s masterful orchestral writing flourished under Karabits and the BBCSO’s precise playing. Full of atonal Second Viennese School angst, mystical harmonic and timbral orchestral resonances, out-and-out brutalism and sheer terror, Bluebeard’s secrets were vividly conjured. An enlarged percussion section, complete with grotesque-sounding wind machine, sounded particularly vivid, evoking the sighs and groans of Bluebeard’s castle.

Confined to a narrow strip of staging in front of the orchestra, the performances of Hungarian bass Gabor Bretz and American mezzo-soprano Michelle de Young were physically restrained by necessity – heightening the sense of intense interior drama. Bretz’s Duke Bluebeard was commanding and elusive, with tremendous bass resonances, whilst de Young has become renowned for her hysterical and curious Judith, truly a doomed anti-heroine in a Straussian mould.

An unforgiving Barbican Hall meant that at times the singers could do little to compete with the BBCSO’s raw power. But nevertheless, this truly was intimate, personal drama played out on an epic sonic scale.

It was slightly cruel to pair Bluebeard with a first half of Ravel’s Mother Goose suite and the premiere of a piece by Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer – both programmatic works not quite delving into the heart of a mysterious psyche. Ravel’s “five children’s pieces” are fairy tales in a more familiar mould. Orchestral precision made for a polite and matter-of-fact performance not quite unlocking the ebb and flow of the suite.

Schnelzer’s Tales from Suburbia, composed in 2012 and finding its first performance here, is described by the composer as a magic realist evocation of his life in a Stockholm suburb. Conceived in part as a concerto for orchestra, the work belies a fascination with impressionistic orchestral colour. Suburbia at times reaches the sonorous and ethereal – at others, it is content amongst the mundane and quotidian.