Trust Offenbach to take the grisly, psychologically complex tale of the murderous Bluebeard and turn it into a frothy, madcap comedy. Buxton’s production is funny and it knows it, and the first night audience loved every minute. What’s more, the singing is excellent, and it will undoubtedly be a great success over the course of the festival. But I for one prefer slightly saner pleasures.
Offenbach injects this opera with tremendous life and exuberance. The scoring is imaginative – in the brass heartbeats and slimy violin portamenti, we hear Bluebeard’s creeping personality. In the devilish orchestral introduction to Part Two, where the swirling chromatics and stormy, stabbed outbursts suggest both the Don Giovanni overture and Rossini’s storm sequences, Boulotte’s fear for her life is vividly portrayed. Offenbach composes in grand sweeps – his extended, highly developed act finales again recall Mozart and Rossini – every character, every emotion, every turn of events springs from the score and the whole is transformed into living, breathing theatre.
But in the process, something is lost. Amid the bustle, there is little time for repose. Often the oom-pah accompaniments and bouncing, popping melody lines recall the style of bel canto, yet Bellini and Donizetti knew when to take a boot off the accelerator. Bluebeard enters and laments the loss of his former wives, yet immediately his feelings are bundled into a catchy showpiece, performed here as a cabaret hit with a microphone, a suited and booted male chorus and a twinkling mirror ball. It’s manic, and fatigue can set in.
But that is a flaw inherent in the composition itself, and Buxton can be proud that their production is so highly comic and frequently endearing. The opening set looks like a delicious pink wedding cake. The Roman pillars and very-cardboard trees atop it are surreal, and their clean lines and bright colours amusingly contrast the filthy, skirt-above-the-waist simpleness of Boulotte, a randy pitchfork-brandishing pig farmer. The characters are clearly defined – the amorous, daring young lovers, the sex-deprived and consequently sex-mad Queen and her bumbling King, the drunk butler and the po-faced deputy. It’s all simple and effective. And the sets are imaginatively used. As Boulotte is about to be killed, the cake-shaped stage is folded into two and splattered with syrupy blood. How to murder her? Bluebeard brings out an axe, a noose, a chainsaw and a bag of rat poison before opting for a needle in the buttocks. Oh God, I feel odd is the victim’s show-stopping response. It’s superb comedy.
And musically, there are no great problems. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts on first night took great trouble to mould the various parts of his tenor, and he projected every word of the humorous English translation. Geoffrey Dolton was strong as Popolani, though his acting could be melodramatic – directors should know by now that a character acting drunk is never that funny in performance. Jonathan Best needed to brighten his tone in the role of Oscar, but he had comic timing on his side. Imelda Drumm gave the head turning performance as Boulotte and Alastair McCall deserved particular mention for an impeccably characterised walk-on as Alvarez. The chorus were lively, though all that movement took its toll on their voices. And conductor Wyn Davis held the ensemble together authoritatively. It’s not Offenbach’s greatest hour, methinks, but a great laugh nevertheless.