It was roughly around the same time last year that Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra visited the South Bank Centre to perform Mozart’s Magic Flute. It was fun and colourful for the younger audiences and enthusiastically performed by the orchestra. Two years prior to this performance (23rd May), the South Bank Centre had Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic perform Bartók’s one-act horror opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1911).
I consider it to be one of my favourite operas. The suspense, the intensity of the music and the terror emitted from the score alone is one of its kind. Even as a semi-stage, the music suffices in sculpting the erring castle of the Duke and his seven mysterious, blood-soaked doors.
On this occasion, the maestro did what he did best. Instead of going straight into the music, which he rarely does, he spoke candidly to the audience about Bartók’s intrigue and love for folk music.
In rural Hungary, the composer would record songs sung by young girls and farm labourers. There, in the middle of the auditorium, audiences listened to the hiss of 19th-century recordings. It was all slightly unexpected, but it was kindly offered by Fischer to add some context to the live performance, to come, by Márta Sebestyén.
She sang traditional Hungarian folk songs with a trio from the orchestra, mostly strings. Audiences smiled and lightly tapped their feet, amused by the joyous and folk music they didn’t expect. This was followed by Bartók’s 1933 Peasant Song, which was performed by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the positive energy was just as bright as the trio and Márta Sebestyén’s fascinating performance. Fischer was in great form.
Then came the main event. The opera began with Fischer speaking the prologue, then it was straight to Ildikó Komlósi as Judith. She had previously sang the title role two years ago, and she was just as dramatic and prepared for this performance. Judith’s innocence was finely demonstrated by her rich voice, which was poised with Krisztián Cser‘s Duke. His deep and frightening tones made his Bluebeard menacing and destructive. And the fifth door was worth the wait, as it was as shiny and sublime as I had wanted it to be.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra made the fifth room ‘the kingdom’ sound like a room I’d like to visit. The titillating sounds of the harp and celeste were there, but there was no use of the auditorium’s own organ, which would have blown the audience away, just it had done two years ago. Nonetheless, no-one complained.
Fischer’s unorthodox introduction to Hungarian folk music was something new, yet it was welcomed by all. The evening was an occasion to go straight into the heart of Bartók with an opera that encapsulated his suffering and the human spirit’s during the time of war. It certainly was an enlightening night for many.