Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring @ Coliseum, London

6, 10, 12, 14, 20, 25, 28 November 2009

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

ENO’s bold decision to pair its new production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with The Rite of Spring has paid off. Daniel Kramer’s demonically dark and disturbing production of the Bartók was shocking in its bleakness, and left the audience reeling. Performed with Michael Keegan-Dolan’s audacious re-imaging of Stravinsky’s ballet this was as thoughtful and provoking an evening as you could hope for.

Bartók’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is one of the most psychologically intense in the repertoire but as it lasts just under an hour it needs to be performed with another work. These days Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung usually fills the bill but finding a common thread between the two works is difficult, and given that Daniel Kramer’s production was so intense, it would have been too draining to sit through more opera. In hindsight the decision to pair the Bartók with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was a good one as it gave the audience the opportunity to witness these two coruscating 20th century scores performed in tandem.

Most directors stage the Bartok in an epic, other-worldly manner, but Kramer takes a more mundane, down at heel at approach. Nothing is left to the imagination and given the horrors that we are exposed to on a regular basis in the real world, for an opera performance to leave you feeling this disturbed is a remarkable achievement. Kramer manages this in the startlingly original way he directs the two protagonists, drawing finely-etched performances from both Clive Bayley (Bluebeard) and Michaela Martens (Judith). Bluebeard is portrayed as a kind of crazy-professor incarnation of Jim Broadbent, who far from having an air of mystique about him, skips and jumps around the stage with glee as his new bride gradually opens the doors in his castle. As the true horror of what Bluebeard has been hiding gradually becomes apparent, Bayley infuses his characterisation with more stillness, so the transistion from slightly eccentric professor to cold-blooded murderer becomes even more harrowing. In Giles Cadle’s brilliantly evocative dungeon setting, what we see behind each door’ becomes increasingly disturbing until at the climatic opening of the fifth, Bluebeard reveals his family’ it’s at this point that Kramer seems to be drawing a parallel between Bluebeard and Josef Fritzl and the second scariest thing to come out of Austria the von Trapp family.

I won’t spoil the denouement, but suffice it to say it left the majority of the audience shell-shocked. Musically there was much to enjoy in Clive Bayley’s creepily insidious performance as Bluebeard whilst Michaela Martens was suitably troubled and delivered a febrile performance as Judith. Unfortunately in the pit Edward Gardner failed to convey the neuroses that suffuse this brilliant score and much of the playing was prosaic the climaxes were too loud and the quiet passages lacked intensity.

After the interval however the orchestra delivered as an exciting performance of Stravinsky’s seminal ballet as I’ve heard, so full marks for Gardner for making the most important work of the 20th century sound as powerful, daring and innovative as it did here. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s staging and choreography re-imagined the work, but despite the complete reworking it still managed to remain loyal to the essence of the original, and although I’m not really qualified to comment on the brilliance or otherwise of the dancing the impact that Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre made was both visceral and thrilling. I loved every second of it.

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Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring @ Coliseum, London