Matthew Butt

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring, English National Opera 10xi2009

Posted in music by bnathyuw on 15 November 2009

It’s good to disagree, and Peer and I certainly differed on this double bill.

I came out of the Coliseum impressed by Daniel Kramer’s disturbing interpretation of Bartók’s one-act two-hander, and entertained by Fabulous Beast’s performance of Stravinsky’s epoch-defining ballet; Peer deemed the evening incoherent, and thought the performances unengaging, and indeed somewhat trite.

Let me make my case:

Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára) is a powerful piece, engaging beyond its brief duration. I have seen two previous productions: a former production by ENO, and one at the Royal Opera House. Both of these interpretations focussed on the decayed grandeur of Bluebeard’s castle, and brought out the shifting colours, both acoustic and visual, that Bartók wrote into his score. A colossal chandelier took centre-stage at the Opera House, and Judit and Bluebeard picked their way through the dusty decay of a palatial wreck.

There was no doubt in these productions of Bluebeard’s nobility, even if that nobility was compromised by a palpable eccentricity (this is also the interpretation of Angela Carter, whose Bloody Chamber is quoted in the programme of this latest production: her Bluebeard is a Breton nobleman, who locks his bride in his island fortress while he attends to his affairs in the city). In these productions, the wealth may have been squandered, the trappings threadbare, and the dungeons bloody, but the setting is indeed a castle, and we almost expect torture chambers, rose gardens and lakes of tears. Indeed, in these productions, the final twist — that the three previous wives are not murdered, but alive and sequestered behind the seventh door — comes almost as a relief: Judit will not be killed for her curiosity, but will survive, and even have a bit of company.

Kramer’s production takes a very different slant. During the prologue, we see Bluebeard and Judith (I will lapse here into the English spelling, as the opera was sung in English, as is customary for ENO) approaching a small wooden door, over which looms a sodium streetlamp. Once on the inside, we see a wall of iron-framed industrial windows, a pile of bricks, and a couple of battered mannequins evoking the castle. As Judith opens the first three doors these parts of the set are illuminated, and Bluebeard dances around in agitation: more a second-class Willy Wonka than a fearsome liege.

And then the penny drops: Bluebeard is no nobleman, and this is no castle (except in the sense that an Englishman’s home is his). The fourth door (the Garden) reveals a pitiful mound of earth into which have been stuck plastic flowers, and the fifth (the Kingdom) brings out a dormitory of troglodyte children, each smaller and more cowed than the next; we may be in Austria-Hungary, but Bluebeard is more Fritzl than Dracula, and his subjects are no serfs, but his offspring.

Of course, at this point, anyone familiar with the opera will see where this is taking us: the sixth door (the Lake of Tears) becomes little more than a comment on what has been revealed to us, and Bluebeard / Fritzl, now no longer the comedy sociopath, but determined and in control of the situation, pushes on to the seventh door: the Wives. And here, rather than revealing his three majestic anchorites: dawn, midday and evening; we are introduced to Dumpy, Frumpy and Clumpy, his three prisoners and slaves. Judith’s passage behind the door is no apotheosis, but her entry into sexual bondage. The final tableau illustrated Bluebeard’s absolute carnal power over his four chattels, and left me aghast at the darkness of an opera I had previous taken as pure allegory.

So, overall, a powerful and unsettling interpretation of this wonderful work. However, I cannot let it escape without some criticism. I have mentioned Bartók’s use of colour in the opera, and this was an important aspect in the previous productions, particular at the Opera House. Bartók specified in his score what colour light should be used for the opening of each door, and the music itself can bring dramatic changes of atmosphere as each is unlocked. However, despite the great clarity of their playing, the ENO orchestra under Edward Gardner just didn’t bring out these changes in colour. Peer commented that the music sounded the same throughout, and I am afraid I somewhat agree with this judgment: this score needs great precision, but it is also highly colouristic, and this is absolutely fundamental to a successful performance.

And so came the interval, and our habitual rush to the Opera Bar at the Chandos for a quick intermissary pint.

The Rite of Spring (le Sacre de Printemps / Весна священная) was one of my set texts back when I was a teenager studying Music A-Level, so I know many parts of it intimately; it is also one of the great works of the early twentieth century, summing up the new approaches to composition that were emerging at that time. This was, however, the first time I had seen it danced, and I was looking forward to seeing how this might work.

The riot that greeted the first performance of the Rite is infamous in musical lore (although quite how spontaneous it was may be doubtful), and the novel choreography was as much a cause of scandal as the music. Fabulous Beast’s interpretation didn’t strike me as particularly iconoclastic, but several fogeyish characters were to be seen making their way out of the the auditorium during the first few minutes, so the work appears to have kept its ability to elicit premeditated disapproval, even if only amongst Telegraph readers.

Stravinsky placed his ballet in an imagined prehistoric pagan Russia; Fabulous Beast’s interpretation was rather more Soviet or post-Soviet in character, featuring factory operatives, tea-swigging lasses, and a panoply of pit-bull head-masks which may have recalled either Bulgakov’s Sharik or Pelevin’s oil-hungry werewolves.

I felt however that the production fell rather short of Stravinsky’s programmatic intentions: I would have been hard pushed to identify a Dance of the Elders, and the victim showed no sign of dancing herself to death by the end of the performance. Indeed, it was frequently hard to work out what the performers were doing, let alone why.

The orchestra’s performance here was excellent: the clarity they had shown in the Bartók was very effective in the Stravinsky, and the dancers were given a secure foundation for their work.

So, was it a coherent double bill? Insofar as it mixed the genres of opera and ballet, it could be accused of bastardism, but I took no exception to this heterogeneity. Perhaps more incongruous was the disjunction in the two productions’ treatment of their subject matter: Bluebeard was subjected to a harrowing reinterpretation, whereas the Rite was given fairly conventional treatment; this meant that the two halves, while perhaps musically each the equal of each other, were mismatched in mood. Perhaps this was intentional: after rape, slavery and incest, maybe we need some dancing proletarians to ease us back into the world; but the Rite is a serious piece with a serious (if bogus) theme, and a more sophisticated interpretation might have done it better justice.

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