How ENO Delves Into The Dark Recesses Of An Imagined Totalitarian System

By Maria Bregman

Opera is often associated with romance, beauty, and fantasy. But sometimes, it can also be a powerful medium to explore the darker side of human nature and society. Such is the case with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, a one-act opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, based on a French fairy tale by Charles Perrault.

The opera, which premiered in 1918, tells the story of Bluebeard, a mysterious and wealthy nobleman who has married a young woman named Judith. He brings her to his castle, which has seven locked doors. Judith, curious and defiant, demands to see what is behind each door, despite Bluebeard’s warnings. As she opens each door, she discovers a horrifying aspect of his life: his torture chamber, his armory, his treasury, his garden, his kingdom, his lake of tears, and finally, his former wives, whom he has killed and kept in his castle. Judith joins them in the last chamber, as Bluebeard’s latest victim.

The opera is not a typical fairy tale, but a psychological thriller that explores the themes of power, violence, secrecy, and obsession. It also reflects the political and social context of Bartók’s time, when Europe was ravaged by war and revolution, and when totalitarian regimes were emerging in various countries. Bartók himself was a vocal critic of fascism and communism, and he eventually fled his native Hungary in 1940, after the Nazi invasion.

The English National Opera (ENO) has staged a new production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, directed by Daniel Kramer, the artistic director of the company. The production, which runs until February 14, 2024, at the London Coliseum, is part of the ENO’s 2023/24 season, which features a diverse and innovative repertoire of operas, from classics to contemporary works.

The ENO’s production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a minimalist and modern interpretation of the opera, which creates a claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere. The set, designed by Paul Steinberg, consists of a large metal cube, which rotates and opens to reveal the different chambers of the castle. The lighting, designed by Paul Anderson, uses stark contrasts of darkness and brightness, as well as flashes of red, blue, and green, to enhance the mood and symbolism of each scene. The costumes, designed by Buki Shiff, are simple and monochromatic, except for Judith’s red dress, which stands out as a sign of her vitality and passion.

The production also features a video projection, designed by Frieder Weiss, which shows images of the castle’s chambers, as well as abstract shapes and patterns, on the walls of the cube. The video projection adds a layer of visual complexity and dynamism to the opera, as well as a sense of mystery and ambiguity. The projection also interacts with the singers and the orchestra, creating a dialogue between the live and the digital elements of the show.

The opera is performed by two singers, Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Rinat Shaham as Judith, who deliver both vocal and dramatic excellence. Hayward, a British bass-baritone, portrays Bluebeard as a complex and conflicted character, who is both menacing and vulnerable, cruel and lonely. He sings with a rich and resonant voice, which conveys his authority and charisma, as well as his pain and despair. Shaham, an Israeli mezzo-soprano, portrays Judith as a strong and courageous woman, who is determined to uncover the truth about her husband, even at the cost of her own life. She sings with a warm and expressive voice, which expresses her curiosity and love, as well as her horror and sorrow.

The opera is accompanied by the ENO Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, the music director of the company. The orchestra and chorus play a crucial role in the opera, as they create the musical and emotional landscape of the story. The score, which is influenced by the late Romantic and early Modern styles, is rich in harmonic and rhythmic variety, as well as in orchestral color and texture. The score also incorporates elements of Hungarian folk music, such as modal scales and irregular meters, which reflect Bartók’s interest and research in ethnomusicology. The orchestra and chorus perform the score with precision and intensity, creating a sonic experience that is both captivating and haunting.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a challenging and disturbing work, but also a masterpiece of musical and theatrical expression. It is a work that invites the audience to enter the dark recesses of an imagined totalitarian system, as well as of the human psyche. It is a work that questions the nature and consequences of power, violence, secrecy, and obsession, in both personal and political realms. It is a work that resonates with the contemporary world, as it confronts the issues and dilemmas of our time.

The ENO’s production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a bold and brilliant interpretation of the opera, which showcases the artistic vision and talent of the company. It is a production that deserves to be seen and heard by opera lovers and newcomers alike, as it offers a unique and unforgettable operatic experience.