Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring - ENO, 6 November 2009
Opera and ballet don’t necessarily go as well together in practice as they do in theory - witness Covent Garden’s recent Acis/Dido double bill and Opera Holland Park’s Iolanta. The most compelling argument for the Bluebeard/Rite pairing is the logistical one – you might as well use the massive orchestra Bluebeard demands for something else as well. Perhaps ENO hoped too for some cross-fertilisation of opera and dance audiences. But it’s a brief evening, and I can’t think many would be happy to pay £90 for less than an hour of opera, still less for the half hour of dance which follows. Another special discount must be on its way.
Daniel Kramer’s very graphic Bluebeard won’t please purists, but it’s riveting theatre. The reason for Clive Bayley’s quaint Austrian hunting jacket soon becomes obvious – Bluebeard is a Fritzl-like figure with a Sound of Music fixation and a secret family in the basement. His ultimate kick is to dress up as Captain von Trapp while doing something extremely nasty with a sword to his spreadeagled Julie Andrews, Judith. The grubby slasher movie set is atmospheric if not quite the castle of the soul Bartok had in mind, and its boxy shape helps the voices project over the enlarged orchestra. The dramatic pacing is fantastic – Kramer lets little clues slip here and there, but the ending is still a colossal, queasy shock.
The main drawback is the price of rounding out the enigmatic Bluebeard. In a traditional production Bluebeard’s cryptic personality is open to interpretation. A monster, a myth or simply a man? But here, as his desires and needs gain concrete form, Judith’s attraction to him becomes less and less credible. Put simply, you wonder what she’s doing there with this twitching maniacal psychopath. But it’s a brilliantly-executed alternative to the usual inevitably static alternative if you don’t think too hard. Clive Bayley’s rough around the edges voice suits the speech-like lines and he works hard to keep the demented villainy on the right side of panto. Michaela Martens is a more full-bodied mezzo than usually heard, lending her interpretation a knowing quality that doesn’t sit credibly with the easily duped young bride. But both sang clearly, accurately and loudly – basic requirements that the Coliseum doesn’t always meet.
I was less convinced by Ed Gardner’s conducting. Not on a technical level – the orchestra played excellently. But it didn’t deliver dramatically, something a less breathless production might have exposed. Gardner’s young, and he’s tackling many of the works he conducts at ENO for the first time. A conductor needs to spend time with the score as well as with the orchestra. Is he simply taking on more than he can handle?
His Rite of Spring was more accomplished – the key corners at least sounded thought-out. A pity Fabulous Beast’s dance element was so risible. If a weary parade of bog-trotter clichés didn’t diminish the timeless power of Stravinsky’s score enough, there were twenty todgers jiggling in the breeze to contend with as the male dancers disrobed en masse. To give the much-derided Calixto Bieito his due, he understands the effect of mass male nudity on stage is purely and always comedic - he could teach choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan a lesson. And I was left baffled by the ending, where the Chosen One (female) is surrounded by men in frocks. Men should take women's place? A nice bit of misogyny to go home with.
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