Thursday, 18 October 2018

Bartók - Bluebeard's Castle (Dublin, 2018)

Béla Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Irish National Opera, Dublin - 2018

André de Ridder, Enda Walsh, Joshua Bloom, Paula Murrihy, Elijah O'Sullivan

The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin - 13 October 2018

The new Irish National Opera's inaugural season is promising to be an ambitious and varied one, and not just in terms of repertoire and touring productions; they've also taken the opportunity to draw on Ireland's tremendous singing, musical and theatrical resources. For Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle sung in Hungarian, a work that for all its brevity is no mean challenge, the Irish National Opera have called upon playwright Enda Walsh to direct the production.

Walsh is no stranger to opera, having worked as librettist and director on Donnacha Dennehy's The Last Hotel and The Second Violinist, and he brings some familiar touches to Bartók's darkly fascinating Duke Bluebeard's Castle. The director comes to the work apparently with some preconceptions, but finds that such a work inevitably exerts it own power and meaning, and in a way he manages to deliver on both proposals.

It's not as if the underlying moral of Bluebeard's Castle is difficult to work out. Judith comes to the Castle as the new wife of Duke Bluebeard and wants to know everything about her husband, all his dark secrets, good and bad, and Bluebeard has quite a reputation, not least for the unknown fate of his previous wives. Walsh puts emphasis on the allegorical aspect of Judith wishing to open the seven locked doors of the castle and shed some light into its dark corners, adding sound effects of creaks, groans and eerie noises that suggest something terrifying lying in those inaccessible recesses.

In terms of creating atmosphere and tension, it's highly effective and complementary to Bartók's menacing score, but Walsh also sees the opera as an exploration of a couple who are just getting to know each other, testing out each other's limits and seeking to establish dominant roles. The old-fashioned gender distinctions are still there, but dropping Duke from the opera's title and dressing the couple in modern clothes, Walsh wants to use them consider how this applies to a modern marriage and whether there is indeed any significant difference in who literally holds the keys to the relationship.

Emphasising the allegorical, there's no physical opening of doors in Jamie Vartan's set design other than the fissure that runs down the middle of the formidable solid-looking stone wall at the back of the stage. The revelation of the other rooms, revealing masculine obsessions with power, money and violence, are shown in those abstract terms as projections and shifts of light and colour, putting emphasis not on their allure but on some sense of horror and shame that lies behind their acquisition.

All of this builds up of course to the sinister mystery of what lies behind the seventh door and, as I've said, Enda Walsh - following along with the slow mounting tension and blasts of horror in Bartók's score - builds the tension superbly with great attention to atmosphere. There really is a sense of mounting dread as the wall parts to reveal what is behind the final locked door; and the revelation is chilling (almost literally, as you can feel the cold air rush forward from the back of the stage of the Gaiety Theatre). Bluebeard's three wives emerge, confronting Judith with the knowledge that Bluebeard has also had deep relationships with other women, something that she needs to know, but once she does (and in the light of revelations of Bluebeard's true nature from the other rooms) it forever changes how she sees her husband.

The decision to dress the three gothically pale former wives in dusty faded 18th century ball gowns doesn't really fit with the modern aesthetic elsewhere in the production, but that's almost certainly intentional. If Walsh is applying the allegory of Duke Bluebeard's Castle to a modern relationship, the fate of Judith to similarly accept the old-fashioned attire of the previous wives only emphasises the reality that nothing has changed, that the distinctions and roles remain largely the same as they have been since the dark ages. The allegorical nature of the work allows room to consider the moral as not quite simplistic as all men are domineering aggressive brutes with dark silent desires and women are fatally victim of their own insatiable curiosity and pushiness.

Walsh perhaps can't risk leaving it on that note, so there is another revelation lying deeper within the seventh room, one that explains the significance of the young boy at the start of the opera (padding out the short length of the one-act work) by building a speaker and delivering an additional message in English before the traditional Hungarian prologue. The revelation of abandoned children sitting among ruins could be a reference to the disturbing proclivities of Gilles de Rais, the real-life inspiration for Duke Bluebeard, but it also opens the hermetic relationship drama out to the realities of how those dark urges for power, money and violence can lead to miseries elsewhere in the world.

If this idea was going to work it really needed the full support of the musical and singing forces and there was much to offer and impress on that front. Conductor André de Ridder perfectly controlled the wide dynamic of the work allowing space for the drama to work within it, but also insuring a wide spacial dynamic within and outside the pit for the harp on one side and the booming percussion up at the back of the other side of the stage. Paula Murrihy's Judith was delivered with lyrical and dramatic conviction and Duke Bluebeard was well characterised by Joshua Bloom. His warm timbre was underpinned by a steely defiance that managed not only to be menacing, but seductive and even loving, particularly when describing the qualities of his three previous wives. The results were thrilling and chilling.

Links: Irish National Opera