Last Updated on 2nd September 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle presented by Green Opera at the Arcola Theatre, London.
Bartók’s only opera, dating from 1910, is an excellent choice for inclusion at Grimeborn. Only an hour long, it still offers a huge variety of moods within, all overlaid with a brooding intensity that the intimacy of Studio 1 at the Arcola only serves to enhance. This excellent production by Green Opera did not disappoint, packing a real punch both from two fine leads, and with a searingly incisive orchestral tableau ably coordinated by John Paul Jennings.
There is very little plot here to summarise: it’s all about atmosphere and implication. Bluebeard brings Judith back to his imposing dark castle, here an artist’s studio, and she insists fearlessly on letting in the light, despite his warnings, by opening up seven closed doors, each of which reveals an impressive or striking vista, but where every one of them is tainted by blood. The vocal style is mostly declamatory – for both singers – and the pictorial work is largely given over to the orchestra, here expertly reconfigured for ten performers, a palette that turns out to be more than rich enough for this confined space.
The most novel aspect of the inventive direction by Eleanor Burke is to populate the stage with salvage objects and upcycled items, largely drawn from trawls along English beaches. Skeins of bottles tied together with fishing tackle, and wisps of feather and fabric all attractively combine in a number of installations that come to figure prominently in the action. A derelict door also features – inevitably – together with streamers of seaweed for flowers and a wonderful fluffy chandelier lowered from above to represent Bluebeard’s treasury. The final cape placed around Judith’s shoulders as she is shuffled off into Bluebeard’s memory mansion is even more poignant for its frayed and fragmented qualities.
There need to be frissons of horror too, and these come from both what you see and hear. An unwinding bedsheet that shifts from white to spreading ruddy bloodstains aptly caught the tone of the sixth door, and the orchestra topped by Judith’s cry was more than equal to the chordal majesty of the fifth door revealing the full extent of Bluebeard’s kingdom overshadowed by a threatening cloudscape. For this work to release its full power, your own imagination needs to be triggered by the sensual creepiness of a castle that weeps blood, and this production certainly released that charge in this reviewer.
There are alternating casts, and on the first night James Corrigan and April Frederick had a real chemistry, both sexual and fearful, that helped suspend disbelief and sustain tension. The setting, less apocalyptic than usual, implied that Corrigan was a lonely artist who collected and absorbed muses, less a murderer than a solipsist. He certainly conveyed well both a longing for companionship and an unwillingness to shed an exploitative past. Frederick caught the right edge of both boldness and fearlessness as she succumbed to the thrill of wanting to know more and more. She also registered movingly the deflation of someone who suddenly realises that they now have more knowledge than they ever really wanted, or perhaps needed.
Given its starring role in the story, we have to say something in detail about the orchestral forces. John Paul Jennings coordinated matters with flair and care – in the showy moments he let his superb roster of players have their collective heads, but he also shaded and graded the sound expertly to showcase and support the voices where they needed priority. With one instrument per part there were opportunities for all to shine through with individual character, especially so with the winds, but the power of the whole was there when needed too.
This production thoroughly won me over to a chamber-scale performance of the work – it enhances the drama by drawing you in, while losing little resonance in the reduction of orchestral scale. The opera itself can be read on several levels – a piece of abstract symbolism influenced by the more expressionist works of Richard Strauss, or as a moral parable about how far we should really seek to penetrate the psyches of even those who we think are closest to us. We left with lots to think about and the memory of a rigorous, technically impressive, and demanding performance – in the best sense. Do catch it either at the Arcola, or later this month at the Asylum Chapel, Peckham. And as a bonus, for every ticket bought, a tree will be planted.
Other reviews from Grimeborn 2022