Duke Bluebeard’s Castle


Bartok’s nightmarish fairy-tale opera (the story is based on one written in 1697 by Charles Perrault) is the final offering of this season from English National Opera. Unusually for ENO, it’s a semi-staged production, with a set consisting principally of a vast single table that crosses the front of the stage almost for its entire length. Even more unusually, it’s sung in the original Hungarian with surtitles rather than in translation.

It is, of course, the grimmest of tales. Duke Bluebeard brings his new bride Judith back to his castle. She has left behind a settled, peaceful life out of her immense love for him. And it is the light of this love that she believes can make him happy – light is the word she repeats here, as she seeks to open up the dark and forbidding castle and flood it with daylight and love. There are, of course, monstrous stories about her husband but Judith either doesn’t believe them or she doesn’t want to. Either way, she determines to be the key to his redemption through the power of her love.

As Judith opens each of the castle’s seven locked doors, she gradually realises not just the terrifying truth about her husband but the inevitability of her own fate. The doors reveal great wealth and a garden but also a torture chamber and a lake made of tears. Everywhere there is blood – Judith’s white gown is increasingly besmirched with red handprints. Bluebeard resists the opening of all the doors but, above all, he’s reluctant to give Judith the key to the seventh. When she finally prevails, it reveals her husband’s past wives – he addresses them as the loves of his dawns, noons and evenings. Judith, of course, will join them as the love of his nights.

Bartok’s rich, yearning music is beautifully played by the orchestra under the baton of Lidiya Yankovskaya. On stage, though, the evening did not go according to plan. The Scottish mezzo-soprano Alison Cook who was to have sung the part of Judith was taken ill and Jennifer Johnston stepped in after three hours’ rehearsal to sing her heart out in the role. Unfortunately, while the voice was magnificent, three hours just weren’t long enough to learn the choreography of the role and she was replaced by Crispin Lord who mutely played out her actions while she sang from the score to one side of the stage.

Perhaps Lord was the only person available who knew the choreography. For me, though, a silent man just couldn’t marry up with the disembodied voice of Judith and it would have been better to abandon the semi-staging altogether and simply listen to Johnston and the fine bass of John Relyea as Bluebeard. Opera unquestionably requires a certain level (sometimes quite a high one) of suspension of disbelief, but the disconnect here was a step too far.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle runs at London Coliseum to 23rd March. For more information, and for tickets, please visit www.eno.org.