Opera Review: Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók and Sinfonetta by Leoš Janáček, Opera North, Huddersfield Town Hall
The first thing that greets you as you leave Huddersfield Train Station is the tall statue of the short Harold Wilson, well 5’ 8” according to Google. Despite the fact I heckled him in 1974, I’ve always thought of him as the last great Prime Minister. Given the shower that followed, I think there is little to dispute that. A wave of nostalgia hits me; my brief flirtation with Huddersfield Town, an ex working at the art gallery, being thrown out of the George Hotel and told never to darken its doorstep again. I always look forward to my visits to this Yorkshire gem.
So it was with some anticipation that I stepped down from the packed 15:38 from Manchester Oxford Road. I reminded my fellow passengers that the uncomfortable journey had been brought to them by the Tory Government and to vote Labour. Which brings me back to Harold and Huddersfield. Like a true socialist, Wilson always believed in the social benefits of culture, and the town is at the forefront of the civic promotion of music with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, both internationally renowned. Perhaps lesser known is the Kirklees Concert Season, an annual series of concerts organised by the council and staged at Huddersfield Town Hall. And it is this that I have come to see. As part of the season, Opera North is performing a concert staging of Bartók’s one act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, as well as Janáček’s Sinfonetta. Rather weirdly, as I was writing that sentence the first movement of Janáček’s piece played on Radio 3. Scary.
Despite a 56 per cent cut in its budget, Kirklees Council still manages to put on events of this calibre. With the full commitment of Opera North, its director of orchestra and chorus, Phil Boughton, has managed to amass more than 100 musicians on stage to produce a performance that he guarantees “Huddersfield Town Hall will be reverberating with for some time after the concert has finished”. I can only second that. The town hall is a magnificent expression of Huddersfield’s civic pride that goes along with a belief in the uncountable positives that musical events like this engender. I suspect both are under threat from the purveyors of privatised philistinism that understands neither civic nor pride if it doesn’t produce a profit.
The evening begins with the powerful opening brass fanfare of Janáček’s Sinfonetta. It is simply breathtaking. Full of gusto and cinematic sweep, Sian Edwards conducts it with great energy and precision. Like Tchaikovsky’s famous theme for the Lone Ranger, I immediately recognise Janáček’s equally famous forth movement theme for Crown Court. Music can be a great teacher. The second half brings even more riches.
Bluebeard’s Castle is a single act two-hander. Bluebeard (Christopher Purves) has brought his new wife, Judith (Karen Cargill) to his rather dark and foreboding castle. She is intrigued by the seven locked doors that confront her as the moisture drips from the walls. She demands the keys. She discovers his torture chamber, his armoury, a treasure, and a secret garden full of beauty. She wonders at the breath of his kingdom behind the fifth door and is scared by a lake of tears behind the sixth. Bluebeard begs her not to open the seventh door, but her curiosity will not let go. She opens the door to find the bodies of all his previous wives as well as the brides of the morning, midday and evening. Judith joins them as the bride of the night leaving Bluebeard alone. Judith’s homecoming is lonely, secretive and short. Purves and Cargill are both world-class singers and their performance, supported by an excellent orchestra, is spellbinding.
As I pass Harold on my way back to the station, I sense a glow of civic pride in his bronze reflection.
Photos courtesy of Opera North. Photo of Harold Wilson by Robert Hamilton.
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