Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle. Andrea Meláth, mezzo-soprano; Gustáv Beláček, bass; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.
Respighi: Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows); Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions); Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.
Of all the works on these two CDs, Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle was written earliest, yet sounds the most modern. Ever since its first performance in 1918, it has been a wonder and a puzzlement. It takes the old legend of Bluebeard, who married and killed his wives, and turns it into symbolist poetry and an inner drama in which all the wives – four of them – are still alive at the end, to the unknowable extent that they ever were. The opera is all dialogue between Bluebeard and Judith, his latest wife; nothing happens except that Judith opens seven doors and says she sees many things beyond them – but the audience sees nothing. The words are all-important here, which is why the new Naxos recording, despite its many musical pleasures, is ultimately unsatisfying. There is no libretto; very few listeners are likely to know Hungarian well enough to understand what is being said; and the included synopsis is rendered meaningless by the fact that what happens on stage is almost irrelevant to what this opera is about. The performance itself is well above average, with Andrea Meláth especially good, her Judith coming across as more powerful than Gustáv Beláček’s Bluebeard almost to the end, and her voice considerably stronger as well (probably because of the miking: Beláček is sometimes overmatched by the orchestra, while Meláth is not). Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony do a fine job with the music, especially the dark and ominous beginning and the huge orchestral climax before the opening of the seventh door. The one-act, one-hour opera requires the two performers to declaim in a manner that is not quite melodrama, not quite Sprechstimme, and that both singers handle comfortably. As for what this version of the Bluebeard myth really signifies, it is hard to escape the notion that when everything means something, nothing means anything. Librettist Béla Balázs, in seeking profundity, merely created obscurity – certainly for non-Hungarian speakers. Bartók’s music, though, is as much a character as either Judith or Bluebeard, and it is every bit as odd and disturbingly effective today as it was in 1918.
The three works by Ottorino Respighi are far more straightforward; they are also far less interesting. Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows) dates to 1925 (although it was not performed until 1927) and was in fact not written about church windows: the four movements’ titles were added after Respighi finished the suite. The work is pleasant and, as usual with Respighi, cleverly scored. The gently nostalgic first movement, “The Flight into Egypt,” and dramatically warlike second one, “St. Michael the Archangel,” sound best as interpreted by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic. The third movement, “The Matins of St. Clare,” drags, and the finale, “St. Gregory the Great,” never really builds to an impressive climax. Impressioni brasiliane (Brazilian Impressions) was written in 1928, after Respighi made a trip to Brazil, but this performance never quite takes off. The first and longest movement, “Tropical Night,” should sound more sensuous than it does here; the second, “Butantan” (the name of a research facility where dangerous snakes were raised) is never quite sinuous or menacing enough. “Song and Dance,” the finale, is pleasant, but this performance does not break free into the sort of abandoned joy associated with Brazilian rhythms. Nor is there a sense of delight in Rossiniana: Suite for Orchestra, written the same year as Vetrate di chiesa. The suite’s four movements are based on piano pieces that Rossini called Les Riens (“Trifles” or “Nothings”), much in the manner of Respighi’s 1919 ballet, La boutique fantasque. Unfortunately, Rossiniana is not as charming as the earlier work, and Falletta fails to evoke more than occasional joy from it. The one thing missing most on this CD is lightheartedness – a quality that would enhance all the pieces here, including the one whose movements’ titles make it seem to be related to sacred matters.
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