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The Opera Quarterly 20.2 (2004) 335-338

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Bluebeard's Castle. Béla Bartók
Judith: Cornelia Kallisch Live recording, Stuttgart, 28 and 30 November
Bluebeard: Péter Fried     2001
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR Hänssler Classic CD 93.070 (1 CD)
Peter Eötvös, conductor

Bluebeard's Castle has been recorded often, and generally with success. This work is the ideal phonographic opera—the "action" that a listener can conjure up in his or her imagination is bound to be infinitely more exciting than anything that could be shown in the context of a single stage production. Furthermore, the fact that this score fits neatly onto a single CD is practically an invitation to acquire more than one recorded performance.

Native Hungarian singers would appear to have an obvious advantage in this work, although some of the most successful recordings have featured non-Hungarian soloists. Like many English-speaking listeners, I am reasonably comfortable with the "big three" operatic languages (Italian, French, and German) but not qualified to judge a singer's command of Hungarian. I tend to be impressed by the fact that a non-Hungarian singer is willing to perform in the language at all.

Still, in vocal music, there is no substitute for truly idiomatic enunciation of the text. The point can be made by reference to the Solti recording (London 433 082 LM [CD]). [End Page 335] Ever since its initial release on LP, this set has been dismissed by most critics as an also-ran. Solti's conducting is perfectly sound, however, and he has a responsive orchestra (the London Philharmonic) at his disposal. Sylvia Sass and Kolos Kováts give an object demonstration of what is meant by the expression "to sing off the words." Sass, for all her peculiarities of vocal production, sounds like a different and infinitely more vital singer here than she does on many of her recordings of Italian opera. (The same is true of her Hungaroton recording of Erkel's Hunyadi László.) She and Kováts do some truly conversational singing that enlivens many crucial exchanges. (The sequence beginning with the words "Ez a Kékszakállú vára!", as Judith and Bluebeard discuss the castle's idiosyncrasies, is a good example.)

Hungaroton's catalogue currently contains two recordings conducted by János Ferencsik: one, an old mono version with Katalin Kasza and György Melis (HGR 11486 [CD]); the other, an early stereo-era recording, with Klára Palánkay and Mihály Székely (HGR 11001 [CD]). Both should appeal to linguistic purists, despite (or perhaps because of) a certain roughness in the overall execution.

A third Ferencsik-led Hungaroton recording (HCD 12254-2 [CD] is currently out of print—no great loss, since the performance is somewhat of a curiosity. For this version, recorded around 1979, Hungaroton imported two Russian singers, Elena Obraztsova and Yevgeny Nesterenko, who were then prominent on the international opera scene. Even to my untrained ears, their enunciation of the Hungarian text sounds odd; one wonders what the native speakers in the studio during the sessions thought. Nesterenko is, at least, vocally imposing. Obraztsova's brassy, aggressive, and utterly unseductive Judith suggests that what Bluebeard really needs is an eighth room—a soundproofed one, in which to shut himself away from all that caterwauling.

Not to be overlooked is the Antal Dorati recording (originally released on the Mercury Living Presence label; now Philips PHI 434 325 [CD]), with Olga Szonyi and Székely. It is budget priced and includes three excerpts from Berg's Wozzeck as a filler. The refurbished sound is remarkably good for its age.

The István Kertesz recording, with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry (London 414 167-2 LH [CD]; reissued as Decca Legends 466 377 [CD]), deserves its reputation and would still be a good first choice.

Another classic, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay (DG The Originals 289 457 756-2 GOR [CD]), is one of the great wrong-language opera recordings: it is sung in German by Herta Töpper and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The performance is, unfortunately...


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