The orchestra of the English National Opera plays magnificently for their double bill of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. But stage director's Daniel Kramer's concept of Bartók's opera verges on the unacceptable.
The problem is that Kramer did not direct either Béla Balázs's libretto or, indeed, Bartók's music. There have been many Bluebeard stories, plays and even another opera (by Dukas) about Bluebeard. I do not know whether Kramer was influenced by either of those texts but, in my view, he not only did not interpret but fully ignored Balázs and Bartók.
In Kramer's interpretation – brilliantly portrayed by Clive Bayley – Bluebeard is wholly repulsive: a sadistic murderer, who is incapable of love or of any decent human feelings. Presumably this is the idea behind including photos of infamous murderers Charles Manson, Peter Sutcliffe and Frederick West in the programme notes for this double bill.
But Balázs's text (which I know in the original Hungarian) and Bartók's music offers a different view. Their Bluebeard is primarily a very private and therefore very lonely man. It is Judith who pursues him with an obsessive desire while Bluebeard tries to protect/warn her against abandoning her former life for him. It is of note that Bartók, a deeply private man, dedicated his opera to his beloved wife Márta. If Daniel Kramer was unable to understand the main tragedy – that of loneliness – from the words and music, this dedication should have provided a clue.
Then there is the tampering with the material. It is true that – as David Nice mentions in his exemplary article in the programme notes – the Prologue of the opera was added sometime after the composition was ready. However, Bartók reworked the piece several times before the first performance. By the time the opera was premiered in the Budapest Opera House, the Prologue was an essential part. In its text Balázs defined the Castle of the title as the human soul. Kramer did not only ignore this crucial aspect but cut the Prologue altogether. Yet the first 15 or so bars of the music are meant to be played during the last eight spoken lines.
It is unclear why Kramer deemed it necessary or acceptable to put ten children on stage – behaving as if they were straight out of The Sound of Music – in a two-person psychological drama. They diminished, indeed negated, the impact of the majestic fifth door scene which is meant to imply Bluebeard's kingdom. I have never heard the off-stage extra brass group played so nobly (and so well in tune), yet this was my first experience of this scene falling flat and insignificant. The children's continuous presence in the remaining scenes had neither textual nor musical justification.
Kramer's rendering of the final scene – where text and music describe the despair of loneliness with utmost beauty – is a travesty: the indication of a half-nude sexual penetration with a sword (in front of three former wives and ten children) seems to me cheap sensationalism which would have deeply offended Bartók and Balázs.
As with Clive Bayley (Bluebeard), Michaela Martens (Judith) also delivered Kramer's interpretation convincingly. Although a case could be made for a deeper bass voice (than Bayley's) for the part of Bluebeard, both singers sang well and with a style which fits the deliberate folk ballad style of Balázs and Bartók well. Although ENO music director Edward Gardner conducted with great care for all details and his players responded superbly, their impact was diminished by the staging.
The staging of Stravinsky's score left some questions to be asked – why was the young non-dancing boy on stage most of the time and who was the non-dancing lady dressed in black? – Michael Keegan-Dolan and his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre delivered a credible and rousing pagan ritual of which Stravinsky most probably would have approved, not least because of the choreographer's and his dancers' musicality. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether the dancers were supposed to enact communication with Earth or with sexual energies. I was also puzzled when these robust male dancers dropped their clothes (leaving not much to imagination) and put on colourful ladies' dresses. And one wondered about the end, where everybody died except for the girl who – according to the score – was supposed to be sacrificed. But, all along, Stravinsky's music kept its momentum in an admirable performance by Gardner and the orchestra, and all movements on stage were in tune – so to speak – with the music.
Bartók, whose music could be defined by his life-long connection to folk music, valued Stravinsky's use of folk songs. The Rite of Spring is greatly influenced by folk music, so its pairing with Bartók's opera is inspirational. Although I am saddened by director Kramer's staging, this innovative double bill provides an exciting evening.
By Agnes Kory
Photo credits: Johan Persson