NZ Opera presents:
BELA BARTOK – Bluebeard’s Castle
A co-production by Theatre of Sound and Opera Ventures (UK)
Susan Bullock – Judith
Lester Lynch – Bluebeard
Erin Meek – Judith 1960s
Katie Burson – Judith 1970s/80s
Marion Prebble – Judith 1990s
Ava Phipps – Meadow
William Kelly – River
Laurence Renes (conductor)
Daisy Evans (Director and Translator)
Stephen Higgins – Revival Director
Adrian Linford – Scenic and Costume Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting Designer
Max Pappenherim – Sound Designer
David Kelly – Repetiteur
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Thursday 10th August 2023
This presentation was a boldly-conceived contemporary recasting of the enigmatic story of Bluebeard, a character with origins in myth and legend where he’s portrayed as some kind of “serial killer”of his wives. It was then adapted in operatic guise around a century ago by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok as a story of a love-encounter between two strong-willed personalities leading to the tragic subjugation by one of the other. Now, here, we witnessed a radically different “take” of Bartok’s and his librettist’s story, still using the composer’s music and an updated English version of the same libretto, but presenting an entirely new husband/wife scenario. – the couple’s long-standing marriage is shown as being put under considerable strain by the onset of some kind of cognitive disorder on the part of Judith, the wife, a situation borne with considerable forbearance of character from both partners. And, there’s a good deal of sympathy elicited for the plight of each in the situation for different, albeit closely-related reasons that are essential to the drama.
This particular production had its origins in the UK from the Theatre of Sound Company’s reworking by director Daisy Evans of Bartok’s presentation – here, Bluebeard and Judith are living their lives as an ordinary suburban couple, but with Judith’s own grasp of reality seemingly under siege, and her husband, Bluebeard experiencing the pathos of appearing to gradually lose his wife to dementia. So Bluebeard’s “castle” is transformed into their home, and the “doors” (so strikingly symbolic in Bartok’s work) are embodied in a large chest filled with the couple’s memorabilia, one which, during the work Judith frequently refers to with demands that it be opened and its contents revealed.
What seems to be presented here is Judith’s replaying of a version of her own life story as, one by one, certain aspects of the couple’s past are uncovered, in each case embodied by the appearance of a younger woman on the stage, the three that appear by turns throughout the course of the different “revealings” obviously representing younger versions of Judith, and with whom Bluebeard interacts knowingly and affectionately. Still, there’s certainly a kind of ambivalence present in some of these “revealings”, as to whether the latter “wants” Judith to revisit some of these memories, or is, in fact being forced to reveal aspects of his own past that he would prefer remained secret. The sixth of the “doors” is, in some ways, the most telling of these revisitings (as it is in Bartok’s own staging as “the “lake of tears” wrought from what Bluebeard in the opera describes as his own sorrows), where husband and wife here physically wrestle with a box containing what seem like letters, photographs and memorabilia, and the contents are dramatically spilled out onto the floor in front of them – we are uncertain whether the angst here is shared in common by the couple or the result of Bluebeard’s own secrecies being uncomfortably exposed. The husband’s anguished plea of “Judith, must we do this?” adds to the tantalising ambivalence of it all.
The denoument, so telling in Bartok’s version with the revealing of Bluebeard’s former wives, somewhat macabrely and symbolically remaining alive but “held prisoner” in the castle, and the subsequent subjugation of Judith to a similar fate, is here of a vastly different order. The reappearance of the different “Judiths” along with whom one supposes are either the couple’s children or grandchildren swing the scenario’s portals wide open as to the state of things for the pair at the work’s conclusion. Bluebeard’s own resignation to a world of darkness comes across as an intensely personal realisation, but one whose recalibration as a tragic experience “shared” with his wife makes for an intensely moving conclusion in the work’s updated version, a devastation of experience in which love seems to be the only worthwhile positive response.
As with Bartok’s and his librettist poet Bela Balazs’ version of the legend, some of the events of the story give rise to considerable conjecture on the listener’s part as to what is “meant” in places; and I found myself puzzling over certain aspects of the present production. The chief one was the fifth of the “revelations” in which Bluebeard describes the majesty and grandeur of his “realm”, accompanied by the work’s most spectacularly-wrought music, and to which he here reacts by the donning of some kind of “party” costume, and greeting two children, who are presumably a remembrance of his and Judith’s own offspring. Wondrous though the orchestra sounds are, I would hesitate to characterise them as “party music”, and in doing so am confessing to a lack of imagination on my part as to what was at this point exactly being alluded to. Of course, as with many instances of great art, one’s own capacities for understanding are often pushed beyond one’s own limits, and continue to remain a source of wonderment, in some cases remaining a mystery.
All of this was conveyed, firstly and foremostly, by the two singers, Susan Bullock and Lester Lynch, with the utmost dramatic and theatrical skill and conviction throughout – against a backdrop of a whole world of mysterious orchestral sonority conjured up by conductor Lawrence Reynes with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in top form throughout, the soloists “sung” their characters into life, aided by movement and gesture which fitted their characters and situations like a pair of gloves upon the hands of a single person. One hesitates to describe the pair individually, as everything they did on the stage conveyed an awareness of and response to the other, bringing home to us the extent of their tragedy and the remarkable generation of human emotion they directed towards one another throughout. Occasionally the voices were swamped by the orchestra, but such places in operatic scores often demand such a fusion of overwhelming sound in places where voice and instruments become as one – and one surrenders to such moments as part of the experience.
The scenario, and the characters’ movements in their world were unerringly delineated throughout, with direction, costumes, sound and lighting tellingly and atmospherically wrought. Conductor Lawrence Renes controlled the orchestral ebb and flow with point and flexibility, allowing the big moments to “tell” as effectively as he did the score’s many “whispered” detailings at the other end of the tonal spectrum, all quite remarkably re-contextualised here to suit the time and place of the updated schema, and realised with playing that by turns thrilled, gripped. disturbed and delighted. I was sorry that the printed programme provided for audience members seemed to continue the recent trend of NZSO programmes providing a bare minimum of information regarding the works performed and the artists involved, and requiring patrons to “scan” on machines provided in order to get “full programme notes and artist information”. These omissions, such as any detailed background history to the composer and the work presented, along with any kind of artist information certainly detracted from any in-depth “souvenir value” the publication might afford enthusiasts such as myself.
This minor quibble apart, I found myself “caught up” in the experience of this “Bluebeard’s Castle” to a degree I hadn’t quite expected, exchanging my hitherto awe and wonderment at the usual, familiar encounter with the work for a different kind of confrontation with adversity and darkness. It was one which I found couldn’t help but echo some of my own resonances of involvements with various people, interactions which were difficult, and often distressing to encounter and try and come to terms with. This production could be described as a “brave new world” of sorts, and is something one ought to, if one gets the chance, go and experience wholeheartedly for oneself.