Opera Preview: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung at the Royal Opera House

The pairing of two short or one-act works may be a more familiar concept from the ballet season, but it can be just as powerful in the world of opera, too.

The textbook example is of course Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which weren’t written to be performed together but make a more satisfying night at the opera than performing either work alone.

Next year, the Royal Opera is creating a new double bill, consisting of Puccini’s Gianna Schicchi (with Bryn Terfel in the title role) and Ravel’s L’heure espagnole.

But before that, Willy Decker‘s psychologically probing combination of two darker works, Bartk’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, returns for a run of seven performances from May 26.

When it opened in 2002, the production took the opera world by storm. In The Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen described it as ‘An evening of high artistic seriousness, immensely rewarding for anyone with open ears, prepared to concentrate – and another triumph for the Royal Opera,’ which was representative of the unanimous praise heaped upon it by the press.

And as The Independent on Sunday rightly pointed out, the public was equally astonished: ‘A normal night at the opera? Far from it. I’ve rarely known a Covent Garden audience be as gripped during a performance…Suffice to say that this is a unique, electric pool of talent and I’ll eat my beret if Bluebeard isn’t this year’s word-of-mouth box-office success…’ fair warning to grab remaining tickets for the current revival of the Olivier-nominated production.

What makes the pairing of works so effective is the way in which Decker draws dramaturgical parallels between two operas which, although written only a few years apart, would not normally be such obvious bedfellows as the verismo duo of Cav and Pag.

Firstly, the theme of an unravelling mystery creates a clever duality between the two. In Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Judith is on a journey to shed light (both literal and metaphorical) on her new husband Bluebeard’s castle, while in Erwartung, the anonymous figure of The Woman (the only singing character in the piece) wanders alone in a deserted forest at night. What will Judith discover behind the seven locked doors? Who is the dead man that the Woman has discovered? Willy Decker’s productions are always full of extraordinary insight (his Peter Grimes was a tremendous climax to Antonio Pappano‘s second season at the Royal Opera) and his explorations of these questions in the double bill show him at his best.

An evening of high artistic seriousness, immensely rewarding for anyone with open ears, prepared to concentrate – and another triumph for the Royal Opera…’
– Rupert Christiansen on the double bill in The Daily Telegraph.

Secondly, almost the same sets and costumes are used for both operas, so that The Woman is almost a continuation or alternative persona of Judith. Similarly, the man in Erwartung is made to look like Bluebeard. Interpretations of this varied, but in my reading this seemed like The Woman as Judith had killed the man as Bluebeard in a kind of alternative version of the tale. Decker understands that such obsessive characters as The Woman and Judith carry a vagueness about them, which is nurtured and manipulated in this production rather than obliterated by a facile interpretation.

One of the world’s greatest actor-singers, Petra Lang, is returning to Covent Garden after a gap of several years, to play Judith in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Frankly, she’s enough reason to go and see this revival, as both the rich quality of her voice and the deep intelligence she brings to all her roles usually light up the stage. Her versatility was proven at the Barbican a couple of years ago, when she played, with equal conviction, Sieglinde in Act 1 of Die Walkre one night followed by Brnnhilde in Act 3 of the same opera the next an extraordinary, almost Domingo-esque feat. Other recent London highlights include Kundry in Parsifal with Simon Rattle and Cassandra in Les troyens with Colin Davis, both at the Proms, and the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden.

The second (and only other) character in the opera is Bluebeard, who is here sung by the German bass-baritone Albert Dohmen. We haven’t heard nearly enough of him in this country, with only two runs as Scarpia in Tosca (2001 and 2004) at Covent Garden. But they were both extraordinary enough to show us what we’re missing. Elsewhere, he’s a leading Wotan, Amfortas and Jochanaan, but this rare London appearance is also a rare excursion into Bartk’s Bluebeard, and not to be missed.

“A normal night at the opera? Far from it. I’ve rarely known a Covent Garden audience be as gripped during a performance…”
– The Independent on Sunday on Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

In the performances on June 15 and 17, the role of Judith will be sung by up-and-coming soprano Christine Rice. She’s played everything from Britten’s Lucretia to the title role in Rossini’s La cenerentola, as well as featuring in Charles Mackerras’ well-received new recording of La clemenza di Tito.

In Erwartung, German soprano Angela Denoke will make her ROH debut as The Woman, a role she has previously sung under Daniel Barenboim. A star in Paris, Vienna and New York, Denoke’s emotional performance style is sure to appeal to Covent Garden’s demanding audience.

The eternal truths and stark theatricality of the production are ideal for a young audience or the first-time opera-goer, and the good news is that tickets are ideally priced with this in mind. These days, tickets for long-running West End shows such as Mary Poppins and We Will Rock You are soaring to 55 or 60, but you can get the best seats at the Royal Opera House for this production for only 50, with a high proportion of cheaper tickets at 35 or less.

Sponsorship from Travelex, the world’s leading foreign exchange business, has facilitated two further access-enhancing schemes for the Royal Opera House, both of which are in place for the Bluebeard double bill. The first is the Travalex 10 Mondays, whereby the company has financed 100 of the best seats in the House, which are available to the public via a ballot.

The second scheme is the Travelex Student Standby, which by the end of the year will have made over 5,000 tickets available to students at a special price of 10. Students can apply online via the ROH website or text ROH to 83118 to be informed at least 24 hours before the performance that cheap tickets are available. The recent performances of Wozzeck carried a special buzz about them, when literally hundreds of students were able to afford tickets to the opera, and Bluebeard’s Castle offers potentially the same experience.

Decker’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung is one of the company’s strongest, and if the original run was anything to go by, it promises to be a riveting component of the current season.

The Olivier-nominated production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung will play at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on May 26, 30 and June 2, 10, 12, 15, 17.

Tickets range from 4 to 50 and are available by calling the box office on 020 7304 4000 or online via the Royal Opera House website.

There is still time to enter the ballot for the Travelex 10 Mondays scheme for the performance on June 12, plus the 10 Student Standby scheme, both via the ROH website.

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