Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle

Leeds Town Hall hosted Opera North’s latest production on Saturday 30 November, promoted by Leeds International Concert Season.  ‘A delightful concert and opera’ is the verdict of Charles Eager.

The Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Sian Edwards; the role of Duke Bluebeard sung by Christopher Purves; that of Judith by Karen Cargill.

JanáčekSinfonietta (1926)

It was a treat at this concert to see the return of conductor Sian Edwards, who did a fine job conducting Janáček’s masterpiece Katya Kabanova in the first months of this year.  Eastern European music of the twentieth century seems to be Edwards’ specialty, and the understanding which she brings to this evening’s complex and difficult music is evident in every bar.  Likewise, the Orchestra executed many rapid and/or intricate passages without any blemish—or even apparent difficulty.

Sadly, there were no programmes for this concert—the conductor tells us that they never made it from the printer’s. If Leeds International Concert Season wants to supply me with one, I always delight in their programmes and this would be most welcome. Some platitudes are true, and the one that says that every cloud has a silver lining applies here: in place of programme notes, Edwards offered the audience a short and useful summary of each piece before playing it.

Janáček‘s Sinfonietta is a little masterwork from late in his life.  It is a patriotic piece written in celebration of the establishment of Czechoslovakia and the country’s release from the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918.  Appropriately, it begins with a short fanfare for trumpets with timpani.  They play the sort of pentatonic theme which appears in several places in Janáček‘s work and which reflects his extensive research of Czech folk music tradition.

This is followed by a longer, more typically symphonic movement which is based on the strings, with some elegant melodies played by the wind instruments.  The brass is present but retiring.  This movement is largely based on a rapid, demisemiquaver ostinato, which tires me just looking at it.  Kudos to the orchestral players for playing it with such energy and crisp articulation. 

The third, central movement is my favourite.  Sian Edwards described it as nostalgic in her address to the crowd; I think of it as romantic.  It would not sound out-of-place as the romance theme from a code-era Hollywood movie, with its theme of rising and falling thirds.  This leads into a brief scherzo movement (the fourth) which again uses a bold folk melody played on the trumpet, with fascinating countermelodies playing beneath it.

The last movement brings in a new theme related to those before, and (again) some challenging demisemiquaver passages before returning superbly to the fanfare theme with which the whole piece began.  As a coda, the entire orchestra plays at its loudest and densest, creating a thrilling conclusion. This was a wonderful performance of this piece and the first that I had heard which allowed me really to explore the detail of its masterful writing. Thank you to the Orchestra and to the conductor for this!

BartókDuke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911, revised 1918)

Bluebeard’s Castle was a relatively new piece to me.  I can recall listening to it when I was eighteen but, being eighteen, I didn’t take great interest.  I approached this half of the evening with trepidation—partly for this, but mainly because of other memories, namely playing Bartók’s Violin Duets and the first few books of his Mikrokosmos for piano whilst learning these instruments.  One leaves such pieces with no doubt as to Bartók’s musical learning, but not necessarily with an undying love for his artistry.

Thankfully, the fears were unfounded.  Although dense with musical study, Bluebeard is thoroughly ‘accessible’ to the unlettered listener, with streams of lush, complex chords and ear-catching ostinati.  It was sung beautifully in Hungarian by mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and baritone Christopher Purves, with English sur-titles so that we could make out roughly the beauty of the original libretto, written by Bartók’s friend, the poet Béla Balász.  The sound of the Hungarian language went beautifully with the folk music influences in the composer’s score and work in general (a feature which he shares with Janáček).

It is not a plot-driven piece: Judith, Bluebeard’s new wife, arrives at his castle and is oppressed by the darkness of the great hall with its seven locked doors. Over the course of the opera, she nags him to open each door.  I won’t say more than that, since each door reveals something genuinely surprising for the first-time listener/viewer. The world the opera presents is fantastical—the story is derived from a fairy tale by Charles Perrault—and the wonder stemming from the story and, in particular, Judith’s wonder (and sometimes horror) are painted beautifully in the orchestral and vocal writing.

The piece is about an hour, and conductor Sian Edwards’ interpretation made easy sense of this mass of musical complexity so that one could identify discrete sections.  The libretto also lends itself to this, being structured into parts by the sequential opening of the doors.  The concert staging was bare, and it is a testament to the quality of Balász’s libretto (and Perrault’s story) that so much of the wonder of the text comes across without any help from set, and with minimal, deliberately static acting.  This said, it would be even more wonderful, I think, to see a complete, sensitive staging in which the many fantastical features are realised in sets, backdrops, projections, etc.

It was also a bit of a shame not to have the programme: Opera North’s programmes contain a lot of work and are very professional, always shedding light on the pieces being played.  I am well on my way to having a shelf full of their programmes! Not having one is a minor regret, especially since it makes review-writing a bit harder. Nevertheless, I hope that I have guided the reader through reasonably clearly.

Thanks to Opera North and all involved for a first-rate concert and opera. When they finished, I wanted to hear the whole evening all over again!


Charles Eager

Charles writes on classical music and opera.  He is co-author of Synkronos,  published in September 2017.

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