Vörös & Mälkki’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”

BARTÓK: Bluebeard’s Castle / Mika Kares, bs (Bluebeard); Szilvia Vörös, mezzo (Judit); Helsinki Philharmonic Orch.; Susanna Mälkki, cond / Bis SACD-2388

It almost boggles the mind that this masterpiece was written in 1911; 110 years later, it still sounds modern, fascinating and complex, better in fact than many a “modern” opera written nowadays. Here Susanna Mälkki who, along with Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, is one of the two hottest women conductors in the world, tries to make her mark in this challenging masterpiece.

She is ably aided in this endeavor by bass Mika Kares and mezzo-soprano Szilvia Vörös, both of whom have outstanding voices, and I was delighted to hear that Mälkki includes the spoken introduction which is so often omitted in live performances.

Moreover, Kares and Vörös not only have splendid voices as such but are first-class interpreters. The former has a touch of the late Martti Talvela in his tone, which is all to the good, while Vörös has an absolutely gorgeous timbre that is entirely unique to her. Her only bad moment came early, when her voice spread on a sustained note at full volume; otherwise, she is flawless. One of the more interesting aspects of this performance is that Mälkki, particularly in the opening sections of the work, takes a light approach to the orchestral accompaniment yet manages to infuse it with an undercurrent of menace. We just know something sinister is about to happen; it’s simply a matter of waiting for it to come about.

As the performance went on, the only complaint I had was that Kares, though a sensitive singer, failed (for me, anyway) to create a character with an undercurrent of menace. He sounded a bit too much like a nice guy who’s just misunderstood, which is not what Bluebeard is.

Also as the performance went on, I just got the feeling that Mälkki lost a dramatic connection to the score. All the notes were there, played in the correct duration and with the right dynamics, but somehow it sounded just a bit too episodic. A long view of the score, tying all the disparate elements together, was somehow missing in action.

If you own no other recording of this opera you won’t be too terribly disappointed, but I for one prefer the Georg Solti recording with baritone Kolo Kovats and soprano Sylvia Sass…there’s just more frisson there. In fact, even the old Columbia (Sony Classical) version in English with Jerome Hines and Rosalind Elias, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, has more tension than this one. (And of course, there is also the live performance by Tatiana Troyanos, Sigmund Nimsgern and Rafael Kubelik with the New York Philharmonic, issued on the NY Phil’s own CD label many years ago.)

In short, it’s not bad by any means but it misses that certain amount of frisson that the opera needs.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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