Unlocking the castle doors

Bartok wrote Bluebeard for the opera house. Bernard Haitink finds it works best in the brain.
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The Independent Culture
When Bernard Haitink spoke to me of Bluebeard's Castle in a Berlin hotel room, his final season at Covent Garden was still some seven months away. But now, with Valhalla's imminent fall symbolising the end of an era (Haitink conducts his last Ring cycles as the Royal Opera's music director at the end of September), and the House itself preparing to close for extensive renovation, gloomy Bluebeard seems to fit the mood of the moment. Haitink has a special sympathy for Bartok's inscrutable anti-hero. "I don't know that you can pin him down even as a human being," he says thoughtfully; "he's more of a symbol. Sometimes I think that he's drugged. And this woman who is so attracted to him..." he says, pondering Judith, who ventures among the castle's blood-stained walls and ends her days as Bluebeard's prisoner... "she knows that she's wrong to follow him - that it will be her downfall, her end. But she cannot help herself. When she begs him to open the castle doors, and he refuses, you can translate his decision as the work of conscience, a plea not to dig deeper, 'because I'm not a nice person'."

So is Bluebeard the veiled autobiography of a very private composer? Haitink leans back and sighs. "Who knows? Bartok must have written it in a state of anguish. Or then again, maybe he didn't; maybe - as an artist, as a creator - he was aroused by the symbolism of the story. It's the instinct, the talent of the creative person, that he knows about things without having personally experienced them. Parsifal was composed in very plush surroundings: the loneliness of Gurnemanz in the third act was written by a man dressed in silk, sitting in the luxury of a palace. I do not subscribe to the theory that artists have to lead an awful life before they can create great art. That's nonsense!"

Still, surely some knowledge of a composer's life helps focus a work in its proper context? "Yes, and I am always grateful to read, say, Mahler's letters, or a good Bartok biography - but the moment I start to rehearse and perform, I've forgotten everything, and it's only the music that matters. You know, there's a secret layer in here [Haitink presses his hand to his heart] which helps you: it's beyond 'fact'. There are so many people who are more knowledgeable than I am. Often I find myself thinking, hey, they could give a good performance, and yet when I actually hear them conduct, it's as dry as dust. Of course that's no excuse for ignoring the facts: one should always try and deepen one's knowledge of a piece, but it's very difficult to pin down how one does it!"

Haitink's love of Bartok reaches back to the late 1940s and the first Dutch performance of the Concerto for Orchestra. "Eduard van Beinum conducted, and the programme also included the Violin Concerto played by Yehudi Menuhin. It was a genuinely historic event - and it was so successful that members of the audience wrote to the Concertgebouw and got it repeated three times. I heard all the performances, and they were ingrained on my mind. People can be rather condescending about the Concerto, calling it 'a nice piece, but not real Bartok'; but I think it's a genuinely great work, although it's wrong to make a showpiece out of it."

As to Bartok's other stage works, Haitink has, in the past, lacked the sheer physical energy needed to master The Miraculous Mandarin ballet, although nowadays he senses more compassion in the score than he once did: "I think I can understand it better now."

The EMI Bluebeard CD - a live recording made with the Berlin Philharmonic in February - features John Tomlinson (Covent Garden's Wotan) as Bluebeard and Anne Sofie von Otter as Judith, but Haitink's very first performance of the piece was a baptism of fire. "I was in Salzburg a couple of years ago," he told me; "I took the score with me to learn for a planned performance in Amsterdam, but it lay there unopened in my suitcase. Seiji Ozawa was due to conduct it in Salzburg, but he caught an ear infection - which meant that he couldn't fly in from Tanglewood." Haitink was asked to take over the reins, but hadn't yet learnt the score. "I said that I couldn't answer on the spot, and that I'd need 24 hours to make a decision. Then my wife said to me, 'Come on, let's go home, have supper, have a look at the score and listen (I had Solti's recording with me). Maybe the sparks will fly, and it's certainly a challenge!' So, early next morning I agreed to conduct it, but only on two conditions - that I was provided with a metronome, and that I had access to a Hungarian coach."

Regarding the metronome, Haitink explains how Bartok's tempo and metronome indications don't always agree: "He writes Andante [a walking pace] and Lento [slow], and the Lento is actually faster than the metronome signs for the Andante!" Listening to the recorded performance live in the Philharmonie (the BPO's home hall) certainly confirmed the wisdom of Haitink's approach.

The Salzburg Bluebeard starred Samuel Ramey in the title role and Agnes Baltsa as Judith, but Haitink was just as thrilled to have Tomlinson and Von Otter in Berlin. "John is fantastic; he sang the part with the ENO years ago," he says. "One of my friends in the orchestra is married to a Hungarian woman who heard the performance and confirmed that the language was incredibly good - she could hear every word." But do the voices fit the conductor's own view of the characters? "To be honest, I didn't have specific voices in mind," says Haitink candidly; "I'm always open to suggestions, but I did know that I wanted a very heavy, dark, robust voice for Bluebeard, very masculine - and for Judith, a vulnerable-sounding mezzo. There can be a problem in that the mezzo role is fairly low-lying, which means that the orchestra mustn't be too loud. Anne Sofie seemed to me an excellent choice, a sensitive Judith driven to follow Bluebeard, even in the knowledge that she will ultimately be his victim."

Being such an extraordinarily graphic score, Bluebeard is as suited to the theatre of the mind as to the opera-house stage. The castle doors number seven in all, each of which harbours its own special secret - a torture chamber, an armoury, a secret garden, a treasure trove and vast domains. "Imagine the Fifth Door flying open," exclaims Haitink excitedly, "and the Berlin Philharmonic playing this immense fortissimo. I thought, 'My God, the roof is about to come off!' But how could you achieve that in the orchestra pit of an opera house? And what is the sense of having these two figures moving all the time, unless you have a real wizard of a director who makes something magical of the lighting? It's much the same with Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande: neither work really needs the stage." Haitink recalls how his own childlike vision of Ravel's magical one-acter L'Enfant et les sortileges failed to square with productions he experienced in the opera house. "These works feed your imagination, activate your ability to conjure up visual fantasies - then you look at the stage, the whole thing falls flat, and you long for the private vision you had in the first place." Surely he can't be thinking of Richard Jones's Covent Garden Ring, now, can he?

n 'Bluebeard's Castle' is on EMI CDC5-56162-2. Covent Garden's three 'Ring' cycles run from 21 Sept to 2 Nov, Royal Opera House, London WC2 (0171-304 4000)