Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra played Duke Bluebeard’s Castle to close the Bartók Marathon at the Palace of Arts on 3 February. By Gábor Bóka
It was nearly two months ago, after the Bartók concerts of the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer, that I expressed slight disappointment. The closing sentences of my review read as follows: “With hindsight, this long-awaited performance of Duke Bluebeard”s Castle seems much more of an undelivered promise than a dream fulfilled. We hope that by the Bartók Marathon in February the shortcomings will have been remedied.” Sunday, therefore, was the day of the retrial: we had yet another chance to encounter Iván Fischer’s interpretation of Bluebeard – and this encounter was no less perplexing than the one in December, but now for the opposite reasons.
If I wanted to briefly summarise the difference between the two performances, the commonplace used in Hungarian journalese would come in handy: ‘you could play the difference on the piano’ – clearly in favour of the more recent one. Let’s try and approach this from an obvious perspective: the success can partly be put down to the casting, which this time was excellent, incomparable to that in December. First and foremost, Bluebeard was a much more fortunate choice: the performance of István Kovács was meticulously elaborated, in every detail, which was more than satisfactory not only in terms of his vocal performance but in terms of his overall rendering of the part of Bluebeard. It went far beyond a first approach. All this is important to emphasise because one and a half years ago, on the occasion of the remake in the Hungarian State Opera, staged in 3D, I had some reservations concerning his production. Now that his bass was not suppressed by a disproportionately loud, harsh orchestra and amateurs calling themselves director and scenic designer did not prevent him from doing his utmost, I have to withdraw these reservations. István Kovács is a perfectly authentic Bluebeard: he is in control of both the deep and high registers of the part, his vocal properties, the tessitura of his voice make him perfectly suitable for the part (his voice is getting fuller and fuller in the deeper registers), while as regards his personality, he is closer than anybody else to the statue-like, introvert character that he plays and that has become a standard since György Melis and László Polgár.
My latest encounter with Judit played by Ildikó Komlósi was also at the remake suppressed by the 3D. But then, relying on my earlier memories, I was inclined to think that what I saw and heard there could not be true. The performance on Sunday justified my unshakeable trust: Ildikó Komlósi with her richly flowing mezzosoprano created such a passionate drama which bracketed the evergreen question relating to Bluebeard: whether it is the concert-like or the theatrical performance that nears perfection. Let me emphasise here, Komlósi’s most important device was her voice – the fact that she manifestly lived the drama and attempted (successfully) to follow and convey with mimics and gestures the story in the libretto of Béla Balázs and the music of Bartók only intensified the artistic experience, which can only be described in superlatives.
Following the singers with interest, and in light of my previous experiences with them, I can safely say that the good old axiom seems to have been proved on Sunday: the interplay between partners multiplies the effect of artistic impression if there is chemistry between them. Undoubtedly, the present performance of the conductor and the orchestra inspired both Komlósi and Kovács, and vice versa. I daresay that the other key to the success of this performance was the interpretation of the play by Iván Fischer, which was completely different from his interpretation in December. Then I was looking for words to cautiously praise the musical culture of the orchestra, which is undisputable under any circumstances, and added that Fischer had a special sense of colours, the way he blends them is extraordinary. There was only one thing missing from that performance: the vividness, liveliness and directness of the theatre. Now it was there. The electric circuit made up of the orchestra, the conductor and the soloists was closed from the very outset and the tension was maintained until the last strokes of the timpani. In the meantime we realised that Fischer not only painted colours but attached equal importance to melodies as well. The instruments were singing in the hands of the musicians playing from the predominantly instrument-oriented partiture. Particularly memorable were the birds singing after the fourth door was opened (and it resonated beautifully with the second movement of the Piano Concerto No 3. played not long before).
Any lessons to be learned? We can make two tentative conclusions: on the one hand we have to admit again that the interplay of forces granting an aesthetic experience is unpredictable, there is no knowing in advance if they will strengthen or weaken one another. In December we saw artists no less talented produce a performance that was comparable to this one in terms of professional quality, but far from it in terms of its effect. Neither do we have a proper answer to the question of why was it not irritating to see the embarrassing or even amateur component of the performance (it goes without saying that here I am talking about the former wives of Buebeard behind the seventh door, who were disguised again as sugarloaves, and whose disappearance I had hoped for, but in vain). Maybe it is not too far-fetched to assume that this time it was due to the high quality of music that nothing could divert my attention from Bartók’s opera, the current performance of which was the best opera performance of the season in my opinion.