Tuesday, 17 November 2009


14/11/09, ENO

1hr 55 mins (Bluebeard 55 mins; Rite 35 mins).

What a difference a director makes (for good or ill). We saw a concert performance of these two earlier in the year. Willard White sang Bluebeard with a glamorous Russian as Judith. It was musically challenging and I wasn't sure I cared for it, but it was undeniably impressive and Sir Willard made a fine Bluebeard (WW only does "noble", I suspect) while Judith came across as rather foolish and skittish.

One of the problems with opera is that it often transforms the mundane or the petty or the violent or the downright disturbing into something striking or noble. It's a function of the music, the grand stagings and the fact that those who can sing aren't always very convincing actors. Many opera enthusiasts, I suspect, rather like this other-worldly quality.

But Daniel Kramer, who directed this with Clive Bayley as Bluebeard and Michaela Martin as Judith, was having none of it. He dug down to reveal what Bluebeard is really about, and pretty unsavoury it was: sadism, violence, murder, the exploitation of women. It packed a considerable punch.

It started slowly and I was drifting: a black drop with only a single domestic door and a street lamp above it. Once Bluebeard and Judith were through the door a panel in the drop lit up to reveal them walking along a moving belt, as she pestered him.

When we got to the first of the door/key scenes the drop lifted and we saw Bluebeard's armoury (a toy tank on wheels whose barrel jutted out obscenely between B's legs as he sat on it), the blood (everything J touched seemed to be bloody; she continually wiped her hands on her dress), the treasury (two mannequins dressed in hussar's uniform and rich dark-blue velvet woman's dress) etc etc.

The production really took off with the scene showing Bluebeard's domains, when B pushed aside the back wall to reveal nine curtained bunk beds in the another wall behind, from which clambered nine children in descending order, dressed in recognisably Austrian fashion (blond little boys, girls in pigtails) and with the eldest girl holding a baby in her arms. All very Josef Fritzl. They remained on stage for the rest of the opera, and truly disturbing they were too.

The wives were the children's mothers, three large ladies in flowing robes, who lay down on a matress at the work's end and spread their legs for their master, now dressed in the hussar's kit and wielding a bloody sword. Judith (now in the mannequin's blue robe) made a fourth. Creepy, and rightly so.

Bayley overacted rather, telegraphing too obviously in the early scenes that he was a wrong 'un (why on earth, in that case, did J fall for him?) but singing with great force and clarity: you could hear virtually every word. The Physicist took A's ticket: he turns out to have some musical expertise as a former trumpeter in the Arts Theatre Cambridge pit band, and suggested Bayley was underpowered.

Michaela Martin was a little chunky for my taste and I couldn't hear most of her words; but the chunkiness made sense when you saw B's other wives.

The Rite was a bit of an anti-climax, though interestingly many of the critics preferred the dance to the opera.

We'd been looking forward to it because we've seen as lot of Fabulous Beast's work, choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, at the Barbican and generally think highly of it.

Only three women, in floral frocks, plus an older woman, Cailleach (the Cailleach?) who didn't dance but seemed a kind of shaman and mistress of ceremonies. There were a dozen or 15 men in the tweeds, car coats, flat caps and boots of rural Ireland, plus a white bearded fellow on a chair on a table, who was at one point carried bodily around the stage.

At the start the men all sat down one side of the stage on institutional stacking chairs, as if in some small town community hall, with large cardboard boxes on their laps. They took the boxes onto the stage and danced around them, impressively, leaping and turning on both feet in unison.

Then the women put on hare masks and danced. Then they took the hare masks off. Then the men took dog masks out of the boxes and danced. The men gathered around the women in threatening fashion. The men took the masks off, and all their clothes, and put on women's dresses. Then the Chosen One danced centre stage in her bra and knickers while the men stood around and made some rudimentary moves.

There was too much dressing and undressing and preparation, and not nearly enough dancing. What dancing there was did not impress. The atmosphere of some communal Irish ritual was right; but there was no excitement, no fear, little tension.

While the directorial interventions in the Bluebeard were entirely clear and evidently justified, Keegan-Dolan's seemed rather arbitrary. Why were the men in dresses anyway?

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