Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at ENO

Perhaps it’s a
question of the difference between terror and horror? Should you aim to make
your audience feel the evil, to imagine the chilling frisson of fear or pain;
or should you force evermore gory excesses straight down their throats until
they’re practically choking with nausea? Director Daniel Kramer clearly
believed that unless shock followed blow followed repulsion, we might miss the
point of this production … which was, presumably, to show that we live
in gothic times, to paraphrase Angela Carter, whose own fabulous take on the
myth, the short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’, is enriched by an
ironic subversion entirely absent here.

What lies behind Bluebeard’s seven closed doors is a mystery, albeit
one cloaked in disquieting rumour and dread. But the only moment of mystery and
wonder in this production occurred in the opening filme noire
‘preface’: a single street lamp cast a mournful tinge of
illumination on a solitary door, an invitation to venture into the unknown,
into one’s own psychological darkness. (But, why omit Bartok’s
prologue?) Clever use of a revolve whirled a passionate, eager Judith and her
unpredictable new husband to the subterranean depths of his black, brooding
mansion. Once there, all was revealed: this was a reconstruction of the
‘Amstetten House of Horror’, Josef Fritzl’s ghastly
‘playground’, a place of claustrophobic confinement, sexual
cruelty, incestuous rape. And, if we were still in any doubt, the appearance of
the family von Trapp, perfectly graded by height and representing
Bluebeard’s ‘dominions’, sealed our understanding. It would
be unfair to suggest that Kramer believes sexual perversion and pedophilia are
peculiarly Austrian problems — Fred West and Jack the Ripper also
insinuated their way into the picture — but you get the idea …

‘Bluebeard’, like so many ‘moral tales’, reveals the
fatal effects of female curiosity. Here, Judith, performed by American mezzo
soprano Michaela Martens, certainly began in Eve-like fashion, clutching
passionately at the cold, forbidding Bluebeard. Martens was reliable and
convincing, both musically and dramatically, and sang with a directness most
fitting for Bartok’s folk-inspired style. Sadly, her articulation of the
text was less particular. By contrast, every word of Clive Bayley’s
expertly shaped and powerfully projected phrases rang true and clear. This was
a wonderful performance; at times Chaplinesque in his self-delusions, elsewhere
hinting at a rueful acceptance of his pathological isolation (which revealed
the singer’s, if not the director’s, appreciation of the central
aspect of the role), Bayley was transformed from unwilling husband to exultant
dictator, as the doors which Judith insists on opening divulge the extent of
his tyranny and power.

There was, however, little visual magic as the hidden recesses of this
twilight world were disclosed; indeed, the whole revelation threatened to grind
to a halt, when a stuttering sliding panel shuddered and jolted, requiring a
helping hand from Bayley in order to expose a garden of graves. Blood dripped
from the walls, Bluebeard raced gleefully about on an appropriately phallic
miniature cannon, but it was left to the musical fabric to evoke an aura of
ghastly awe and wonder as the ‘glories’ of Bluebeard’s sunken
treasuries and torture chambers are laid before us. This was a scintillating
reading by Edward Gardner of Bartok’s violent, graphic score — it
told us all we needed to know about the psychological landscape before us.
Expertly paced, the climaxes were judged to perfection; the blazing nobility of
the off-stage brass conjured the dazzling majesty of Bluebeard’s
territorial claims, even as the ‘Julie Andrews line-up’ punctured
the effect. One could shut one’s eyes and appreciate all the nuances of
human behaviour captured by Bartok, from cruelty to joy, from love to
loneliness, a palette which was reduced by Kramer to sadism and

Despite these strong vocal and orchestral performances, the accumulation of
visual excess eventually became tiresome; no wonder there was a stunned silence
after the final tableau — Bluebeard, thrusting a gleaming phallic sword
between the splayed legs of three prostrate prostitutes. Bluebeard’s
crimes should gnaw at our own fears — that’s the point of
Perrault’s seventeenth-century tale, to warn us of the consequences of
indulging our darkest urges. But most people don’t imprison their
children in sunless dungeons, or maim and murder for sexual gratification, and
rather than a sense of unease and restlessness, this production simply left a
nasty taste.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Clive Bayley as Duke Bluebeard and Michaela Martens as Judith [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]
product_title=BÈla BartÛk: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
product_by=Bluebeard: Clive Bayley; Judith: Michaela Martens. Director: Daniel Kramer. Conductor: Edward Gardner. English National Opera, Coliseum, London. Friday 6th November 2009.

Double bill with Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre. Choreographer: Michael Keegan-Dolan.
product_id=Above: Clive Bayley as Duke Bluebeard and Michaela Martens as Judith [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]