Friday, 13 November 2009
They're still living
That's Judith's stunned response at the devastating climax of Bartok's hour-long masterpiece Duke Bluebeard's Castle. It has less of an impact if, as in Daniel Kramer's new ENO production (photographed throughout here by Johan Persson), it's obvious from the fifth door onwards that SPOILER ALERT the children who inhabit Bluebeard's basement must have a mother, or mothers. The revelation can only come as an anticlimax, even if musically Edward Gardner's firm conducting of the ENO Orchestra still drives home the pity and the terror. Kramer aims to shock with the final tableau, but for me it would have been a little bit laughable if only the children hadn't still been onstage. As with Keith Warner's use of the child in his skewed Royal Opera Wozzeck, you felt anxious about the long-term mental well being of the younger participants.
Kramer wants to have it both ways, trying to carry on the mythic resonances of the story while restricting Clive Bayley's Bluebeard to a twitching psychopathic Josef Fritzl, a schwarz-Von Trapp who lines up his family just like Christopher Plummer in the film Austrians still haven't taken on board.
I knew what to expect from Agnes Kory's review on the musicalcriticism.com website - quite an honour for a knowledgeable Magyar to flag my programme article as 'exemplary' - so I suppose I was trying to see the good in the concept, prepared as I was for the production's restrictive aspect. As I wrote in the piece, both Bartok and his librettist Bela Balazs harped on their essential loneliness and the difficulty of true understanding between Mars-men and Venus-women. This is no more just a drama about a sick pervert than The Turn of the Screw is just a study in paedophilia. Kramer would have done well to take note of Balazs's words reproduced in the programme: 'Explanation is like an x-ray: it shatters shape and form...True poetry is true seduction'. But how could you begin to be seduced by Bayley's monster?
Still there was no fudging the balance of power which shifts temporarily from still, menacing Bluebeard in the first half to hysterical, aggressive Judith in the second. Kramer drew strong performances from Clive Bayley - much better than usual - and the intense Michaela Martens.
And if you couldn't quite understand why Judith would have fallen in love with such an obvious nutcase in the first place, I guess her attraction might have been the will to understand such extreme psychopathology. With the keys clear embodiments of painful access to Bluebeard's locked up soul, the lake of tears was especially powerful. And yes, I did weep a bit myself and reeled out at the end on jelly legs. But was that because of the innate power of this ambiguous score, which refuses to locate good or evil exclusively in either character, rather than the production's limiting vision? I will say one thing: Kramer clearly listens to the music, reflecting it both in his characters' actions and in the shifting stage pictures, evocatively designed by Giles Cadle.
It was Gardner's idea to pair Bluebeard with its junior by two years, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which Bartok touted around the Budapest Opera House during the long-delayed rehearsals for his opera. An inspired twinning: containment versus explosion. Yet director-choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan came no nearer to the massive implications of Stravinsky's colossus than any other choreographer I've seen (and I'm still desparate to get hold of a copy of Pina Bausch's version, which Stephanie Jordan concluded our Pre-Prom Stravinsky chat with Chris Cook by describing as much the best of all).
Some of the images from Fabulous Beast's invocation of an Irish ritual have stayed with me: the shaman lady, the bloodthirsty dogheads threatening the girls in pretty dresses
the mob's violence first towards the young man
and then towards the quasi-sage
and of course the final sequence of cocks in frocks ushering in the sun.
The trouble is that while I liked the rhythmic stamping, so much jittering, twitching and flailing doesn't quite fill the energy of the music. The ends of both the first part - which would have to be re-named 'humping the earth' - and the second just didn't build. From my limited experience dance, ancient or modern, rarely does. So half the time I was watching Gardner as he drew beautifully full and rounded solos from the ENO woodwind, rising to the snarl of massed brass and some especially virtuosic playing from the tuba. Five stars for enterprise, then, but only three for the dramatic execution.
The dark side had its lighter moments in Bryn's 'Bad Boys' concert. You can read what I thought about this celebration of effortless charisma here in my first Arts Desk review. I've just listened to the CD, which contains exactly what we missed at the core of the RFH performance, Sweeney's terrifying 'Epiphany' - and yes, much to my surprise, Anne Sofie von Otter COULD play Mrs Lovett when Deutsche Grammophon get round to recording the whole thing, which they must. Terfel rises to the challenge of the grand finale by pulling off the feat of Commendatore, Giovanni and Leporello as the statue arrives to drag the rake off to hell.
As for the Welsh, well, how do they do it? Let's just name a top list of Margaret Price, Dame Gwyneth, Bryn and their seemingly immortal counterparts in the world of popular entertainment, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. To end on a lighter note, yes, the latter two are still very much living and delivering the goods. I saw Shirl on the telly the other night; what vivacity, what a trouper! To think that in my childhood my parents would always turn down the sound on the TV whenever she came on, and laugh at her gesticulations. Here she has the stage to herself for 'I Am What I Am', still on my mind after John Barrowman's towering performance last week, before our hero comes on to join her.
Better still is this collaboration between Tom and Bryn. 'Green, green grass OF home', please, poster, but otherwise, I've no complaints.