As Lady Bracknell (very nearly) says: “To lose one soloist… may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”. Still, in the event, there was nothing careless about this performance of Bartok’s only operatic offering, even with the originally-announced Judith and Bluebeard – Andrea Meláth and Bálint Szabó – both pleading last-minute “ill-health”. Indeed, their replacements – Ildikó Komlósi and Willard White – are more-or-less London regulars in the roles, and though it would be good, for once in a while, to hear singers, shall we say, somewhat nearer to the outset rather than the twilight of their careers, there’s no gainsaying the skill and experience the senior pairing bring to the score. Equally, there’s no denying that the passage of the years has taken its toll, her voice now inclined to spread under pressure and with some very audible grinding of gears between the registers; his losing both tonal focus and warmth in declamatory passages, and acquiring a gravelly undertow elsewhere. Still, now that the wonderful Laszlo Polgar is (very prematurely) deceased, and the even more wonderful Julia Varady (also very prematurely) retired, the gene-pool of idiomatic singers of Hungarian is much-reduced: and I don’t imagine that the present state of the airports in North-East America was such as to encourage much by way of international shopping around.

Willard White headshot

 Indeed, I’m slightly surprised we got the scheduled soloist to play the Liszt Piano Concerto No.2 in the first half – Marc-André Hamelin – given that he lives in Boston, and can only assume either that he got out just in time before the snows came, or that he was already on tour. In the event, he could have saved his air fare, not so much on account of his playing (though the first movement was clangorously over-pedalled) as the sad fact that the work itself is a piece of bombastic, sleazy-sounding drivel of no musical interest to man or beast. Indeed, it would be instructive to learn why it was programmed before the Bartok opera at all – the first one to say “because they’re both Hungarian!” gets a slap – not to mention the usual nonsense of having to sit through a good six minutes’ worth of platform rearrangement in order to lug the piano into position after precisely five minutes of Berlioz’s Rakoczy March from La Damnation de Faust which could surely have been played around it, already pre-set.

Never mind: the opera’s the thing, and it came across here as well as I’ve ever heard it, notwithstanding the regrettable decision to perform it in a fully-lit hall, without surtitles, and without anything even faintly suggestive of theatrical representation such as moody lighting, with the whole audience reduced to burying its collective head in the programme so as to follow the text and translation (Christopher Hassall’s old singing one). Nor do I think it a good idea to deliver the spoken prologue in English when the opera itself is being given in the original: or to entrust it not to a disembodied narrator whose voice emerges from the darkness, but to the Bluebeard himself, standing there floodlit at the front, score in hand, booming away in bizarrely OTT heavily (mis)stressed demotic that was actually more difficult to follow than the Hungarian. But as the music stealthily insinuated itself underneath the Prologue’s later stages, it was crystal clear that musically we were at last in safe hands.

Charles Dutoit is an oddity as contemporary conductors go. His career has been largely built upon flamboyantly idiomatic performances of the entire non-modern French repertoire, and virtually nothing else. If he’s ever conducted a bar of Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss or any of the earlier German Romantics, let alone Beethoven, in London I certainly haven’t heard it. And the only thing I ever saw him do outside of his musical comfort zone was an almost comically bad Shostakovich 5 with his then Japanese band, the NHK Symphony Orchestra. Yet he has held prestigious Principal Conductorships galore for far, far more decades than his retrofitted tonsure would lead you to believe, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, no less. And limited as his apparent range of musical sympathy or effectiveness would seem to be, the fact remains that he has the most fastidious and refined ear for sonority allied to an unerring sense of dramatic pace and weight. Moreover, he plainly has no trouble at all in making the Royal Philharmonic play in such a way that, sight unseen, you would imagine that it was indeed the Philadelphians at work, the string tone full-bodied, glossy and warm yet transparent, the winds exquisitely cultivated yet characterful, the brass rich, mellow and perfectly balanced.

He’s never looked like an entirely serious conductor to me, too self-consciously clipped and inclined to preen, too concerned with “image” and how he’s looking – he even got up to his old trick tonight of leaving the podium to shake the leader’s hand before the weird diminuendo at the end of the Berlioz had fully faded away – and yet, in his chosen field, he invariably delivers the goods and then some (an RPO concert last year of Les nuits d’été with the vocally-better-than-ever Susan Graham, coupled with Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony, was as good as anything I heard all season long). Given that Dutoit habitually shies away from late Romantic repertory – the Straussian component of which was decisive in Bartok’s early development: it was hearing a performance of Also sprach Zarathustra that made him want to become a composer in the first place – I wouldn’t have imagined that Bluebeard’s similarly huge score would be much up his street. And yet. There wasn’t a dramatic instance that passed unrealised, not a dark, shimmering corner of the orchestration he failed to illuminate to perfection, by turns exquisitely beautiful and shatteringly powerful (the climax at the end was quite literally engulfing, in a way I’ve never experienced before, and truly harrowing. If only it had managed to harrow the half-witted oaf behind me, who broke in with loud “BRAVO”s before turning to his bored companion to vouchsafe “I’ve never heard of this Bartok chappie. Who is he?”).

So, although in an ideal world we might have had fresher-voiced soloists – indeed, perhaps would have had if “ill-health” hadn’t intervened – and rather more thought given to the possibilities of this score’s concert presentation, the fact remains we still had a tremendous account of Bartok’s unique opera even so. Surely it’s about time Dutoit returned to the Royal Opera House, where he hasn’t conducted for nigh-on thirty years – the Neil Shicoff Hoffmann in 1986 – and subjected the unpredictable band there to just the kind of motivational charm offensive that’s clearly working wonders with the RPO.

4 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor