Decca's elaborate 1981 studio production of Bluebeard's Castle fails to make much of a case for Bartók's grim opera. The faults are scenic and dramatic rather than musical, and lie primarily with designer Gábor Bachman and director Miklós Szinetár. Bachman's spatially confusing subterranean sets manage to look both outrageously expensive and hopelessly cheesy. The device of the seven doors that open onto Bluebeard's dark secrets offers a designer a beautiful framework for creating a sequence of visually striking images, but here the banality of Bachman's designs and their very mediocre execution are a squandered opportunity, even an embarrassment. Only in the final room does the picture he creates have the chilling power and emotional resonance to do justice to the complex psychology of the music and the drama. Szinetár's direction neither sheds light on, nor deepens the mystery of the relationship between Bluebeard and Judith -- it does nothing to address what this apparently normal woman might see in the zombie-like Duke, and why she would be following him deeper and deeper into the bowels of his sinister dungeon-castle. The opera is admittedly talky, without much action, but Szinetár's pacing is so lugubrious that it drains away any sense of drama. And it's hard to know what he hoped to communicate by ignoring even the most obvious cues in the libretto, such as having Judith touch the castle walls before noting that they are wet, or taking the keys from Bluebeard's hand before unlocking the doors.
Musically, the performances are on an altogether different level, but tied to these visuals, they lose much of their impact; this is a case in which listening to the CD release is infinitely preferable to watching the DVD. Kolos Kovats has a dark, loamy bass that's ideal for Bluebeard, and he sings with idiomatic ease. Vocally, his performance is nuanced and probing, and reveals a character who genuinely cares for Judith and wants to spare her from the dismal fate she seems determined to carve out for herself. That persona is contradicted, though, by the visual and dramatic image he projects. Costumed like a bad stereotype of Count Dracula, his movement is torpid and unvaried, and he seems capable of a single passive facial expression. Sylvia Sass' Judith is a considerably more active character, and her physical and facial liveliness offers a pleasant contrast to the Duke. She sings with passion and transparent emotion, but her voice has an edge to it, particularly in her upper register, that isn't ideal for the character. Georg Solti's outstanding performance of the score with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is the strongest reason to consider this version. Solti, who briefly studied with Bartók, obviously has a powerful feeling for the opera and is particularly successful at bringing out its folk elements. His conducting has real power, and the final scene makes an overwhelming impact. Decca's sound is clean and full-bodied.