Edinburgh Festival (17): Odd Pairing of Purcell and Bartók Operas

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (17) – Purcell, Bartók: Oper Frankfurt / Constantinos Carydis (conductor), Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 25.8.2013 (SRT)

Dido and Aeneas, Photo by Monika Rittershaus
Dido and Aeneas, Photo by Monika Rittershaus

Cast, Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Paula Murrihy
Aeneas – Sebastian Geyer
Belinda – Kateryna Kasper
Second Woman – Elizabeth Reiter
Sorceress – Martin Wölfel

Cast, Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle
Bluebeard – Robert Hayward
Judith – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner

Director: Barrie Kosky
Stage & costume designer: Katrin Lea Tag
Lighting designer: Joachim Klein

Operatic double bills are problematic things because they always constitute a choice and they, therefore, automatically challenge the company to explain why they have paired together their chosen works. Should the director try to find some sort of link between them or ignore the issue altogether? In tonight’s programme note, director Barrie Kosky writes,

Two operas about arrival and departure.

Two operas about departure and arrival.

Two operas about a woman and a man.

Two operas about a man and a woman.

Two operas about lost Eden.

Two operas about forgotten Eden.

Two operas about remembered Eden.

After trying so hard (desperately so, one might say) to justify the link, Kosky then chose to undermine it through productions which, in fact, stressed the contrasts between the two works: Dido took place in a limited space, Bluebeard in a vast one; Dido was a riot of colour, Bluebeard was all black and white; Dido was energetic, Bluebeard was symbolist and still. He seemed, therefore, to go out of his way to break rather than make the link, and there was nothing either visual or aural that suggested any connection between the two pieces. The question of why the two were coupled was, therefore, never even addressed, and so the audience had little choice but to approach them as two completely separate operas that happened to share the same billing.

Kosky’s hyperactive staging of Dido and Aeneas was by turns infuriating and soporific. The only piece of staging was a long bench which, by turns, served to accentuate the separation and the togetherness of the title characters. Paula Murrihy was a strong and successful Dido. The middle and lower range of her voice carried the most colour, putting her more in the mezzo mode of Janet Baker than in the soprano register. Her voice had a predominantly rich, healthy colouring and her singing of the final lament was very affecting, though much of its power was undermined by Kosky’s decision to have Dido indulge in some guttural sobs (or should they be death-throes?) whose unpleasant and irregular noise served only to undermine utterly the soothing beauty of Purcell’s final chorus.

Sebastian Geyer was a solid, if less than outstanding, Aeneas, and Dido’s attendants benefited from crisp, incisive singing from Kateryna Kasper and Elizabeth Reiter. All the action was crammed into a tiny space at the very front of the stage, though the chorus would often spill into (and sing from) the orchestra pit. The three witches were played by cross-dressing counter-tenors, which helped to underline their otherness and weirdness, but the ceaseless (and meaningless) writhing of the chorus served only to undermine the action and to get in the way of the storytelling. Don’t ask me why the sorceress dressed up as a Dido lookalike after Aeneas’ decision to leave, nor why Dido removed her dress to sing the final lament. For me, this staging lacked either inventiveness or any attempt to tell the story realistically. It was, therefore, a monotonous damp squib, not even worth getting agitated about. Last week’s Fidelio at least made me angry; this Dido just left me bored.

Bluebeards Castle, Photo by Monika Rittershaus (1)
Bluebeard’s Castle, Photo by Monika Rittershaus (1)

Bluebeard was better because Kosky at least embraced the symbolist aspects of the drama. The whole took place on a giant tilted disc, which gently revolved as the opera progressed. There was no cyclorama, though: instead the whole, vast backstage area of the festival theatre was exposed for all to see, which had big acoustic effects every time either character had to move to the back of the stage to sing. There were, therefore, neither doors nor keys: instead each new element was introduced by three Bluebeard lookalikes appearing on stage, often with a prop to suggest the contents of the room. The most visually arresting of these was the shower of gold-dust for the treasury, but even more remarkable was the water that began to flow from their costumes for the lake of tears. It’s a surprisingly effective idea, and never left me wishing for doors or gothic walls. At the opening of the final door each of the wives was embraced by a Bluebeard lookalike, before Bluebeard and Judith struck the same pose as the one with which the opera began, hinting (as does Bartók in his music) that the whole cycle might be about to begin again.

The duo of Robert Hayward and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner held the burden of the opera very successfully. Hayward’s voice was weary and heavy without losing any lyricism, while Baumgartner managed to keep an element of whiny irritation to her portrayal of Judith while still evoking sympathy for the character. However, the finest performer of the evening was conductor Constantinos Carydis. It is no mean feat to conduct works from 1689 and 1918 in the same night, and it is to his credit that he conducted each with an entirely different approach. Dido had a small orchestra of musicians playing on period instruments (complete with lutes and recorders), whereas Bluebeard had a full scale modern symphony orchestra. The contrast was dramatic and welcome, and Carydis was remarkably adept at handling both. He pared down the sound for the limited stage of Dido and injected a good dose of rhythmic bounce for the dances, but he allowed Bluebeard to unfold in a large-scale atmosphere of overpowering gloom. The arch-like structure of the opera peaked at the opening of the fifth door, but beyond that the descent into the gloom of the ending was powerful and relentless.

But why pair these two hugely different operas? That’s a question you’ll have to speculate on for yourself.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs at venues across the city until Sunday 1st September. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson