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  • Chris ORourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2018: Bluebeard's Castle

Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartók. Image by Hugh O'Conor


Blood Black Opera

Seven doors conceal seven dark secrets in “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Returning home with his new wife, Judith, who has forsaken all to be with him, Bluebeard must decide whether or not to open those doors and reveal the secrets that lie behind. And in doing so, reveal himself. Her yellow dress the only ray of light in Bluebeard’s blood black world, Judith insists she wants to know everything about the man she’s married. But is Bluebeard looking for release and redemption, or something else entirely? Is Judith looking to redeem her bad boy husband, or looking to change and control the man she claims to love? In Béla Bartók’s allegorical one act opera, with libretto by Béla Balázs, love proves strange as two strange lovers square up against the darkness and the light. A brave, if often problematic production, “Bluebeard’s Castle” might not be all it might have been, but it is visually stunning and its singing and music are nothing less than sublime.

Throughout “Bluebeard’s Castle” director Enda Walsh makes some curious choices which often compete with rather than compliment one another. Such as top and tailing the performance with an overt contemporary image which feels forced. A child takes forever to rebuild a speaker, sitting amidst rubble, while fighter jets and thunderous explosions are heard all around him. This sets up an insufficiently developed connection to the symbolic narrative, despite the inclusion of its oft omitted prologue. A prologue which attempts to position us favourably towards the child in the rubble motif, which doesn’t integrate so much as superimpose itself over an already problematic love story. Less a loving, or even troubled, journey into another’s psychic or psychological depths, love here is an overt power struggle in which, compositionally and performatively, the insistent Judith holds all the power. She might claim love is driving her need to know, but her love amounts to a battle for dominance and Bluebeard’s submission. Indeed, the ever pressing Judith often looks far more ruthless than the often bent and near broken Bluebeard, determined to get her own way despite his protestations. A hurried reversal to flip the power dynamics at the end doesn't quite convince, not helped by a Benetton commercial styled return to the rubble set against a curious use of costume. If initially costumes hint of Noel Coward or the Bright Young Things, replete with champagne bottle and drinks trolley, the wives, looking like a chorus of dusty Miss Havishams, appear to ramble in from another production. It all looks heavy handed and clunky, despite Jamie Vartan’s obviously excellent work on costumes. It might momentarily, and vaguely, suggest a struggle against patriarchy, or the decadence of western civilisation, but it makes for an argument it doesn’t quite sell.

Where “Bluebeard’s Castle” soars is in its sublime singing and a superb performance of Bartók’s dark and electrifying score. Bass Joshua Bloom, and mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy, are both outstanding, mastering the demands of singing in Hungarian as if it were a second language, as well as negotiating the demands of Bartok’s endless recitativo. Throughout, Murrihy owns the stage, and under Walsh’s astute direction exudes an irresistible allure as the confident and insistent Judith who should have been more careful of what she wished for. Bloom, like a weakened panther, might seem to be playing second fiddle, but he’s waiting his moments, striking with power and precision when they arrive. The ŔTE Concert Orchestra, conducted by André de Ridder, highlight the beauty and power of Bartók’s stunning, almost cinematic score, sounding like darkness being compressed into a diamond. Jamie Vartan’s ambitious set, its staircase a thing of gothic beauty, negotiates the conflicting themes of the production admirably, beautifully lit by a stunning design by Adam Silverman. Coupled with Bartók’s music, Silverman’s lighting beautifully evokes the atmospheric tones of a Universal Horror and 50's Hollywood Noir. Jack Phelan’s video design, handling the heavy visual lifting when it comes to the opening of doors, grows steadily in confidence from a modest beginning to an impressive conclusion.

It is to Irish National Opera’s credit that it undertook the first Irish production of Bartók’s rarely performed opera, now celebrating its centenary, reminding us of its immense power and depth. If Walsh’s ambitious production doesn’t land as well as it might, its visual and compositional components are nothing less than stunning, as are the orchestral and vocal realisations of Bartók’s blood black opera.

“Bluebeard’s Castle” by Béla Bartók, libretto by Béla Balázs, directed by Enda Walsh and presented by Irish National Opera, runs at The Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 until October 14

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