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Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performed Béla Bartók’s two masterpieces, The Miraculous Mandarin and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, on three successive nights at the Palace of Arts (MÜPA). The two soloists, Andrea Szántó and Béla Perencz performed the best ever couple in the latter on Sunday evening.

Listening to BFO tuning is already a wonderful musical experience. The various sections playing back the “A” to the leader pampers the ears.

As this time it is only a ballet of bows on the stretched strings, displaying the text of Menyhért Lengyel’s (1880-1974) grotesque pantomime on screens is a brilliant idea. As the music starts to play and the first sentence comes out on the screen, the cinema begins. The quality of music played by Fischer’s orchestra is eternal. Though in my private cinema the film is black and white, reminiscent of the early days of cinema with characters and gestures from the beginning of the previous century, the music is about the here and now, credible and easy to identify with, like a good Scandinavian crime story.

Three tramps in a noisy district of the big city force a young girl to seduce men whom they will rob. Just like in a folk tale, there are three attempts. The first is a poor old beau, the second one a young loser, while the third one is a rich Chinaman. The trumps suffocate, stab and hang the Chinaman, but he is not willing to pass away until he has had the girl. The girl is moved by the desire of the man and overcoming her disgust she fulfills his desire. After this the Mandarin goes out like a light bulb.

Bartók finished the composition in 1918, however, the orchestration was completed only in 1924. The scandal caused by the premier of the Mandarin in Cologne is comparable to the scandal surrounding Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris. It was not the music but rather the sexual intercourse and the orgasm on the stage that shocked the ultraconservative audience.

In the interpretation of Iván Fischer, the Mandarin is the apotheosis of desire. The infernal music of the ‘overture’ depicting the hustle and bustle of the big city, the sounds of horns melt into the song of the clarinet painting the reluctant seduction dance of the girl that will lead into a passionate dance with the young guy. “The chase”, though void of any sensationalist effects, catapults the audience. Iván Fischer with his magician’s skills makes the Festival Orchestra play the music so graphically that anybody in the audience would be able to give a meticulous description of the charaters and even of the furniture on the stage.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

The death of the Mandarin is the symbol of devotion. This is the motif linking the two compositions on the program, and this is the central issue of Bluebeard, as well.

The prologue is recited by Iván Fischer speaking to the audience. His rhythmic rendering of the text is simple, natural, unbelievably expressive and uplifting.

“Music starts to play” – he says and waves to the orchestra with his left hand. What follows is a genuine opera for two voices. Never before have I heard the operatic features of this composition become so obvious. What I am trying to say is that of the symbolic-realistic spheres of the composition, Fischer amplified the realistic, human, psychological aspects.

The orchestra and the two characters in the beginning are extremely lyrical, which is generated by curiosity. Though the duke’s castle is dark and frightening, it is at the same time tempting and attractive with its secrets.

The noble baritone of Béla Perencz perfectly matches the sensitive-sensual mezzo of Andrea Szántó (for the interview with Andrea Szántó click here). Both of them are wounded, Bluebeard and Judit, as are we all. They are searching for intimacy and unconditional love in each other, something that nobody has been given.

Judith left her family and even her fiancé for this, and Bluebeard gives himself another chance to find the woman who will love him unconditionally.

In the brilliant interpretation by Perencz, Bluebeard cherishes hope until the very last moment, in spite of the fact that “initiating” Judith into his secrets, his private life script, is doomed to failure from the outset. First he frightens the woman (torture chamber, armoury), then he rewards her for her persistence, and showers treasures on her. When opening up the door of the treasury, Perencz turns to Judith with a childish, boastful look on his face. This is the only telling gesture of his during the whole performance.

Iván Fischer managed to elicit all the aspects, all the fine colours and details of being Judith from Andrea Szántó. In the beginning she is a scared young girl full of curiosity, longing for devotion.

Bluebeard gets more and more annoyed as he thinks that Judith will give her heart to him only on condition that he opens the doors.

But he is mistaken. Judith will not only love him if he opens up the doors; the more he reveals his real self, the more she will love him. Therefore, Judith gradually grows up, turning from a young girl into a woman, and in her prime can express only her despair, while Bluebeard makes a puppet of her too.

Andrea Szántó shows us the shutting up process with such astonishing power, artistic talent and vocal bravura that it is no exaggeration to claim she is the greatest Judith of our times.

“Henceforth all shall be darkness/Darkness, darkness.” I said it would be this way, didn’t I? Though I did everything I could to prevent it from happening. This is Bluebeard’s bitter conclusion. He was unable to overwrite his own life’s script, he did not want to realise that he was looking for justification for his own life in the four women. This is what transactional analysis in psychology calls a perverted gain.

The fact that people’s curiosity and wish to hear the music of Bartók filled the concert hall in the Palace of Arts on three consecutive evenings is living proof that contrary to the popular saying, our greatest composer Bartók has ultimately managed to become a prophet in his own land.