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Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

by on 1 September 2022

Let’s Make an Opera Sustainably

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

music by Béla Bartók, libretto by Béla Balázs

Green Opera at the Arcola Theatre until 3rd September and then at the Asylum Chapel Theatre, Peckham until 18th September

Review by Patrick Shorrock

Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, with its intense focus on a destructive male-female relationship, is ideal for a small space like the Arcola Theatre.  Thomas Ang’s reduced arrangement for Green Opera’s small band retains the glitter and exposes the barbed wire in this score.  John Paul Jennings, while letting the music breathe,  exercises a good firm grip as musical director, even if there is potential for screwing up the tension a bit more. 

This story of a man who hands over keys to seven locked rooms for the woman who loves him to unlock, until she finds his previous wives in the last room, is fraught with possibilities.  Nowadays, it feels less like a sexist cautionary tale about the dangers of female curiosity than an examination of toxic masculinity.  Bartók’s version does some unusual things with the story. He names his heroine Judith, which makes me think of her namesake in the Apocrypha and of her beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes  This is not a passive victim of patriarchy.  She asks for the keys and opens the doors in Bluebeard’s presence rather than unlocking the rooms behind his back.  Her motivation is love and a desire to know her husband to the full.  April Fredrick (unusually a soprano in this mezzo part) is a splendidly confident Judith.

Bluebeard is oddly passive and sympathetic for a villain, often meekly complying, as though he wishes at some level for Judith to probe the recesses of his psyche.  James Corrigan’s brooding Bluebeard, younger than the usual ageing bass having a night off from singing Wotan – and thus rather more convincing as a partner for Judith – bears a disturbing resemblance to Jamie Dornan’s serial killer in The Fall.  While the libretto drops disturbing hints about the colour of blood, it is not explicit about his previous life.  We only get the hard evidence of who he is when the last door is opened, and it reveals the previous four wives – still alive but disconcertingly silent – waiting for Judith to join them.  All very different from Maeterlink’s version (set by Dukas and staged by Opera North in 1990) where one of the wives is Melisandre from Debussy’s opera.  In that version, Judith saves Bluebeard’s life from the wrath of his oppressed peasants and leaves him at the end with his wives, who choose to stay with him. 

Eleanor Burke, the director, sees Bartók’s piece as an exploration of “the obsessive desire of an artist-muse relationship, and how women interact with male fantasies, projected onto them”.  I’m not sure that this is always fully evident from her production, but her direction of the two singers certainly has you convinced of their mutual attraction, which is rare in this piece. 

There are no keys and only one door (the wardrobe).  Emeline Beroud (production designer) and Nina Brabbins (scenic artist) produce reveals that are imaginative but sometimes a bit anticlimactic (lighting by Trui Malten and Rosie Clarke).  Instead of giving her a key, Bluebeard shows Judith something he’s recycled from some beachcombing on a long table.  Later, he lets down a chandelier in lieu of the treasure chamber, and then opens the doors of the wardrobe to reveal some bits of material doing duty as a garden.  The opening of the doors gets gradually rather more disturbing,  as the bed is stripped of its sheets to reveal the pale lake of tears, and finally Bluebeard opens a wooden box (hastily covered when he first enters)  to take out something that looks a cross between a sex doll and piece of sculpture.  The ending has Judith impaled against the wardrobe, adorned with trinkets fashioned by Bluebeard, with Bluebeard prostrate before the wooden box in a state of emotional collapse. 

Green Opera want to do opera in a way that is environmentally sustainable.  They proudly say how the set and costumes are made from materials sourced at community beach cleans in collaboration with Surfers against Sewage.  They certainly perform opera to a high standard, even if in some areas they are still feeling their way.  Judith’s dress was a good couple of decades out of fashion and looked rather too much like it had been bought in a charity shop.  Relying on beach detritus for props and scenery limits the opportunity to support big dramatic moments with a wow factor.  But Green Opera should not be dismissed as woke, when they are engaging with communities who – even if it is inconvenient for water companies – want clean beaches and rivers, wherever they are on the political spectrum.  Green Opera’s commitment to this is admirable, and blazes a trail that I hope other companies will follow.  Perhaps they should give us a Climate Emergency Rusalka next.

Patrick Shorrock, August 2022

Photography courtesy of Green Opera

From → Arcola Theatre, Opera

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