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Clive Bayley as Duke Bluebeard and Michaela Martens as Judith [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]
10 Nov 2009

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at ENO

This grueling production of Bartok’s operatic masterpiece, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, clearly did not set out to retain any of the ambiguity and mystery of the fairytale which inspired it.

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Bluebeard: Clive Bayley; Judith: Michaela Martens. Director: Daniel Kramer. Conductor: Edward Gardner. English National Opera, Coliseum, London. Friday 6th November 2009.

Double bill with Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre. Choreographer: Michael Keegan-Dolan.

Above: Clive Bayley as Duke Bluebeard and Michaela Martens as Judith [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]


Perhaps it’s a question of the difference between terror and horror? Should you aim to make your audience feel the evil, to imagine the chilling frisson of fear or pain; or should you force evermore gory excesses straight down their throats until they’re practically choking with nausea? Director Daniel Kramer clearly believed that unless shock followed blow followed repulsion, we might miss the point of this production … which was, presumably, to show that we live in gothic times, to paraphrase Angela Carter, whose own fabulous take on the myth, the short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’, is enriched by an ironic subversion entirely absent here.

What lies behind Bluebeard’s seven closed doors is a mystery, albeit one cloaked in disquieting rumour and dread. But the only moment of mystery and wonder in this production occurred in the opening filme noire ‘preface’: a single street lamp cast a mournful tinge of illumination on a solitary door, an invitation to venture into the unknown, into one’s own psychological darkness. (But, why omit Bartok’s prologue?) Clever use of a revolve whirled a passionate, eager Judith and her unpredictable new husband to the subterranean depths of his black, brooding mansion. Once there, all was revealed: this was a reconstruction of the ‘Amstetten House of Horror’, Josef Fritzl’s ghastly ‘playground’, a place of claustrophobic confinement, sexual cruelty, incestuous rape. And, if we were still in any doubt, the appearance of the family von Trapp, perfectly graded by height and representing Bluebeard’s ‘dominions’, sealed our understanding. It would be unfair to suggest that Kramer believes sexual perversion and pedophilia are peculiarly Austrian problems — Fred West and Jack the Ripper also insinuated their way into the picture — but you get the idea …

‘Bluebeard’, like so many ‘moral tales’, reveals the fatal effects of female curiosity. Here, Judith, performed by American mezzo soprano Michaela Martens, certainly began in Eve-like fashion, clutching passionately at the cold, forbidding Bluebeard. Martens was reliable and convincing, both musically and dramatically, and sang with a directness most fitting for Bartok’s folk-inspired style. Sadly, her articulation of the text was less particular. By contrast, every word of Clive Bayley’s expertly shaped and powerfully projected phrases rang true and clear. This was a wonderful performance; at times Chaplinesque in his self-delusions, elsewhere hinting at a rueful acceptance of his pathological isolation (which revealed the singer’s, if not the director’s, appreciation of the central aspect of the role), Bayley was transformed from unwilling husband to exultant dictator, as the doors which Judith insists on opening divulge the extent of his tyranny and power.

There was, however, little visual magic as the hidden recesses of this twilight world were disclosed; indeed, the whole revelation threatened to grind to a halt, when a stuttering sliding panel shuddered and jolted, requiring a helping hand from Bayley in order to expose a garden of graves. Blood dripped from the walls, Bluebeard raced gleefully about on an appropriately phallic miniature cannon, but it was left to the musical fabric to evoke an aura of ghastly awe and wonder as the ‘glories’ of Bluebeard’s sunken treasuries and torture chambers are laid before us. This was a scintillating reading by Edward Gardner of Bartok’s violent, graphic score — it told us all we needed to know about the psychological landscape before us. Expertly paced, the climaxes were judged to perfection; the blazing nobility of the off-stage brass conjured the dazzling majesty of Bluebeard’s territorial claims, even as the ‘Julie Andrews line-up’ punctured the effect. One could shut one’s eyes and appreciate all the nuances of human behaviour captured by Bartok, from cruelty to joy, from love to loneliness, a palette which was reduced by Kramer to sadism and sensationalism.

Despite these strong vocal and orchestral performances, the accumulation of visual excess eventually became tiresome; no wonder there was a stunned silence after the final tableau — Bluebeard, thrusting a gleaming phallic sword between the splayed legs of three prostrate prostitutes. Bluebeard’s crimes should gnaw at our own fears — that’s the point of Perrault’s seventeenth-century tale, to warn us of the consequences of indulging our darkest urges. But most people don’t imprison their children in sunless dungeons, or maim and murder for sexual gratification, and rather than a sense of unease and restlessness, this production simply left a nasty taste.

Claire Seymour

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