Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Leeds Town Hall

Keith Bruce

five stars

ON the same weekend that the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and music director Stuart Stratford presented Mascagni’s Iris at Glasgow’s City Halls, Scotland’s international star mezzo Karen Cargill was the key ingredient in the north of England’s concert performance of Bela Bartok’s expressionist psycho-drama Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

The inventiveness that Opera North has brought to its programme of work in recent years might have led you to anticipate some technological or semi-staged approach to the two-hander, but it was as simple as can be, Cargill and baritone Christopher Purves flanking conductor Sian Edwards with the orchestra ranged in tiers behind them in this spectacular Victorian venue. Nor did it need an iota more.

For Edwards and Cargill these performances were a reunion, following Matthew Lenton’s version of the work for Scottish Opera two years ago. The former marshalled the large instrumental forces with her characteristic clarity and precision, while the singer took us deep into the realm of the seven doors of perception in the fable within ten minutes of the opening narrative, spoken by Purves. She has spoken recently, on Radio 3’s Music Matters, about her emotional investment in those staged performances, and that hinterland was palpable here, the character of Judith forming with each bar of music, as the orchestra and Edwards built their picture of the castle itself, and its lovely hidden garden.

Sung in Hungarian, the erotic subtext to the libretto was increasingly apparent, while the huge sound at the opening of he fifth door, when the hall’s organ joined the party, was quite breathtaking. Although his name is on the title page, the Duke has something of a supporting role in all this, and, like Robert Hayward in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Purves resisted any pantomime villainy in a performance as nuanced as that of his vocal partner.

The first half’s Janacek Sinfonietta was also a perfect foil on the night. The few audience members in the organ stalls were really in amongst the action of the percussion and extra brass, whose playing was as fine as you would predict in this neck of the woods.