Béla Bartók - Judith/Duke Bluebeard's Castle
Concerto for Orchestra (1944), Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1918)
Bayerische Staatsoper, 2020
Oksana Lyniv, Katie Mitchell, Grant Gee, John Lundgren, Nina Stemme
Staatsoper.TV - March 2020
Bartók's one-act opera is often paired with another short work which, whether it's as an accompaniment or integrated to expand on the themes of the work, inevitably colours and has a bearing on the content. And in Duke Bluebeard's Castle themes and undercurrents abound. Rarely however is Bartók paired with one of the composer's own works, mainly because he only composed this one brilliant short opera. La Monnaie in Brussels however managed a fairly successful pairing of Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the composer's 1924 pantomime ballet The Magnificent Mandarin, adding a little commentary on the main short opera, even if there was little obvious connection between the two works.
Katie Mitchell takes a different approach in the Bavarian State Opera's pairing of the Bartók's 1918 Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the much later Concerto for Orchestra, written in the United States in 1944, the two works combining to create a single work, Judith. In Judith the Concerto serves as a musical prelude to the opera, the production using a film by British director Grant Gee that sets the scene for a modern reinterpretation of the opera. Being directed by Katie Mitchell however, you can assume there will be a feminist take on the subject and some might see that as a necessary reading that certainly wouldn't be out of place for this work.
Unfortunately, as far as coming up with a new modern spin on the subject the idea and the execution is again (after Mitchell’s attempt to correct Shakespeare’s chauvinism in The Tempest through Miranda) somewhat lacking. The Concerto for Orchestra is used as the score for a crime-thriller movie, setting the scene of Bluebeard as a sinister city executive in London, scouring an escort agency site that specialises in more mature women, selecting victims that are picked up and brought to him by his chauffeur. Police detective Anna Barlow (Nina Stemme) finds a clue in photographs uploaded by one of the women and goes undercover posing as 'Judith'.
It’s not a terribly original or complex idea but it takes 40 minutes of the Concerto to lay this out. Grant Gee's film is attractively shot in the Southwark district, an area south of the Thames currently being extensively redeveloped, but there is no sign of any real artistry here. There's nothing that provides any motivation or explores the psychology of a predator of women. The Concerto is lovely to listen to, but it doesn’t particularly match with the drama in the film either. It’s much too long as a prelude which does nothing except provide a reason why a woman would willingly following a path that has led to the disappearance of other women. It could have been covered equally as well with a five minute prologue or with a few title screens.
Once we get to Bluebeard's Castle however it has to be said that the sense of menace, danger and the sinister edge of the environment is well achieved. Judith does have a mission to "warm this icy stone" with its weeping walls, breach its ramparts and expose the nature of Bluebeard. The seven doors are visible on security monitors and, as a police detective, Anna has good reason to want the keys to open those rooms. It's fitting that she finds a torture chamber in the first room and a weapons room in the second. Well, what else would you expect to find in the home of a serial killer? The third room also has a sinister aspect, a strong room with a safe, filled with jewellery, trophies stained with blood that undoubtedly belongs to his victims.
As dark as its origins and underlying psychology might be, doesn't turning Duke Bluebeard's Castle into a banal crime-thriller take away somewhat from the original fairy-tale? Well evidently that's exactly what Katie Mitchell wants to do, to demolish any suggestion that the fairy story is about a weak woman's curiosity about the sexual experience of her husband and her helplessness in the face of the power of his masculinity. There's nothing natural about 'Bluebeard's Castle', it's an artificial construct, the lands of his dominion here nothing more than a VR projection, a trick to impress and instill respect. His power is the abuse, mistreatment and enslavement of women. Like Miranda and Lessons in Love and Violence however I'm not sure putting a gun into the hands of a woman to regain power is quite the image to overturn and correct any imbalance.
Bartók's opera is a powerful work in its own right, impressive in its musical flow and expression, working on abstract and allegorical levels, hinting at dark sinister acts, appalling secrets and twisted desires. It's created for two powerful voices to explore and the Bayerische Staatsoper has two such superb performers here in Nina Stemme and John Lundgren. Not only is the singing top class, but the performances are well-acted with a cat-and-mouse interplay, each hiding something, truths gradually being revealed or realised about each other. Whether you view that on a cop/criminal or male/female level, it does capture a sense of the imbalance of power, or where the balance of power is perceived to be.
Former assistant to Kirill Petrenko, the musical direction by Oksana Lyniv is excellent, maintaining an intensity that matches what is happening on the stage. Alex Eales' set design is also very impressive for a work that relies on establishing the right mood. Coming in from the underground garage the bridges the film with the opera, the set remains below ground one room leading to the next, sliding into place. It creates a sense of an enclosed claustrophobic environment, threatening and entrapping with no windows and no natural light, the castle as a projection of Bluebeard himself. Reservations about viewing it as a crime-thriller movie aside, the performances of Stemme and Lundgren in this environment make this every bit the titanic encounter it ought to be.