A remarkable Duke Bluebeard’s Castle from ENO

It would be hard to imagine greater stress levels on the morning of the opening night of English National Opera’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle when soprano Allison Cook, scheduled to sing Judith, informed staff of her indisposition. By mid-afternoon Jennifer Johnston had stepped in and began a single two-hour rehearsal. Seemingly unfazed, she stood in front of a music stand to one side of the stage while Crispin Lord, a staff director for ENO, walked her part. Not the most auspicious start to Béla Bartók’s unsettling, hour-long two-hander, but this eleventh-hour rescue was a masterly demonstration of triumph over adversity.

Based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale and Maeterlinck’s play Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, Bartók responds to the grim fatalism of Béla Balázs’s libretto with an inspired score in which the orchestra is effectively a third character. The familiar plot tells of the impressionable Judith who has abandoned her family and fiancée for Bluebeard and, as his new bride, agrees to live with him in his forbidding castle. Her curiosity is fatally piqued as she fearlessly demands to know what lies behind its seven sealed doors. Turning a blind eye to the revelations, each discovery indicative of her husband’s troubled inner world, she finally encounters his former wives (15 in this production and each dressed in virginal white) and realises her own destiny, her Bluebeard beyond redemption.

Leo Bill, Crispin Lord, and John Relyea

If, as it’s been claimed, this early work (completed in 1911 but not first staged until 1918 in Budapest) is the perfect opera to hear on disc, it’s also a good fit for a semi-staging as presented here. For this production, designer Rosanna Vize opts for a long, stage-width table, its length and cluttered blood-stained paraphernalia – wine bottles, cutlery and flowers – evoking a grim supper for two. Add to that Ian Jackson-French’s atmospheric lighting and you have a striking chiaroscuro effect that conjures a Renaissance masterpiece – and at one further stretch of the imagination Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. In the absence of actual doors, director Joe Hill-Gibbins fashions the idea of moving chairs around the table to suggest each new chamber: red wine, cutlery, glittery foil and heaps of flowers variously representing the torture chamber, armoury, treasure trove and garden. Action beneath the table evoked the silent lake of tears, cleverly lit from a handheld lamp by the English actor Leo Bill who also moves all the props and, at the start, assumes the role of speaker of the Prologue, inviting us to consider the question “Is the story outside or within?”

Jennifer Johnston

Canadian bass John Relyea made for an impressive Bluebeard, more world-weary than monstrous, as much a prisoner of his castle as his wives. Whether resigned, sullen or tender, his richly upholstered voice easily filled the stage and he seemed unperturbed by the slim, white-clad figure of Crispin Lord acting out the role of Judith. His full skirted and ambiguous presence brought off a homoerotic charge in the closing scene with the suggestion of Bluebeard having taken a husband rather than a wife – a remarkable contemporary twist that Bartók and Balázs could never have imagined. With barely any opportunity to polish her portrayal of Judith, at least vocally, Johnston was no less compelling in her various guises as an initially acquiescent wife, then wilfully determined young woman, passionate and resolute in tone. Her top C for the opening of the fifth door was delivered with aplomb.

There was much to admire from the ENO orchestra which responded magnificently to Lidiya Yankovskaya’s incisive direction, her alert ear enabling a detailed performance and excellent balance between pit and stage. Handsomely played, superbly sung and imaginatively staged, this production was a fine achievement; just a pity there were only two performances.

David Truslove

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle [sung in Hungarian with English surtitles]
Music by Béla Bartók
Libretto by Béla Balázs

Prologue and movement of props – Leo Bill, Judith – Jennifer Johnston/ Crispin Lord, Bluebeard – John Relyea, Director – Joe Hill-Gibbins, Designer – Rosanna Vize, Costumes – Sarah Bowern, Lighting – Ian Jackson-French, Conductor – Lidiya Yankovskaya

London Coliseum, Thursday 21 March 2024

Top Image: Crispin Lord, John Relyea & ENO Chorus

All photos © Nirah Sanghani