Superb singing and theatrical audacity from Theatre of Sound delivers a most gripping Bluebeard’s Castle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle: Soloists of London Sinfonietta / Stephen Higgins (conductor). Theatre of Sound at Stone Nest, London, 6.11.2021. (KMcD)

Susan Bullock (Judith) and Gerald Finley (Bluebeard) (c) Mihaela Bodlovic

Director – Daisy Evans
Design – Adrian Linford
Lighting design – Jake Wiltshire
Sound design – Max Pappenheim

Judith – Susan Bullock
Bluebeard – Gerald Finley

Launching a new opera company is always a brave undertaking – doing so in the shadow of a global pandemic takes even more guts. So hats off to Theatre of Sound, in conjunction with Opera Ventures, for being so bold and adventurous by presenting a slimmed-down version of Bartók’s evocative one-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, as their first staging.

Performed in Stone Nest, a former chapel on Shaftesbury Avenue, this intimate space magnified the impact of this work. We left shattered, emotionally drained as Theatre of Sound managed to deliver one of the most gripping 60 minutes of music theatre we have witnessed in a very long time. On paper it shouldn’t have worked. Bartok’s iridescent score was reorchestrated by conductor Stephen Higgins for eight players – strings, clarinet, horn, piano, organ, and celesta – yet miraculously he managed to retain the tinta of the original. True, one missed the visceral impact of a symphony orchestra and organ at full pelt when Judith opens the fifth door, but given the constraints required by the undertaking, one never felt short-changed.

Director Daisy Evans took a bold, interventionist approach, and the results were spectacular. Adrian Linford’s designs reveal we’re in the here and now. Bluebeard is attired in everyday clothes, there’s an armchair, lamps, and a large chest on the floor. After rummaging silently through the chest, he leaves, returning a few moments later with Judith. She is confused, unsure of where she is – but she’s no stranger to this ‘castle’. It quickly becomes apparent she’s suffering from dementia.

In this domestic setting there are no doors to unlock, but at every turn where a door should be opened, she delves into the chest and a memory of her life with her husband is revealed. At points women appear, silently, to remind her of key moments in her life – marriage, birth, and death – as she desperately tries, yet fails, to remember these milestones. As Bluebeard wearily and desperately sings: ‘Must we do this, Judith?’, you instinctively know this scenario has been acted out in this household many, many times. One might argue that Evans’s approach turns Bluebeard’s Castle into an entirely different and new opera – given it’s so far removed from Bartok’s original. These thoughts did arise after the performance, but throughout one was so gripped by the theatrical audacity, yet honesty of her approach, that such niggles paled into insignificance.

Whether her approach would have been so powerful without the two protagonists engaged for this endeavour remains to be seen, but securing the prodigious talents of Susan Bullock (Judith) and Gerald Finley (Bluebeard) was a stoke of genius. To be able to watch two of opera’s finest singing-actors up close and personal was a rare privilege – the audience is only a couple of metres away from the action – and both gave performances that were astonishingly assured, even by their high standards.

Evans was also responsible for the translation and given how both singers are renowned for their impeccable diction, they made sure every word came across. Bullock was quite simply sensational as Judith. Watching her trying to remember her past, yet ultimately failing, was truly heart-breaking, and she sang throughout with sensitivity, yet didn’t hold back when required. Her constant pleas to her husband to ‘let the light in’, had an added poignancy given the ‘light’ here wasn’t a physical light, but the light of her memories.

Finley was superb as her frustrated husband, desperate for her to remember the past, but equally distraught at having to remind his wife of their life together, reliving the good times and bad, repeatedly. Expanding into heavier repertoire has added extra colours, weight, and bloom to his magnificent baritone voice, and he sang and acted the role as if his life depended on it. Faultless playing from the eight soloists from the London Sinfonietta, brilliantly conducted by Higgins, set the seal on this extraordinary undertaking. There are only a handful of performances left. Just go!

Bluebeard’s Castle is performed at Stone House until November 14. There is an alternate cast for some performances (Gweneth Ann Rand and Michael Mayes). Check listings for details.

Keith McDonnell

1 thought on “Superb singing and theatrical audacity from Theatre of Sound delivers a most gripping <i>Bluebeard’s Castle</i>”

  1. Sensitive review for an astounding performance. Michael Mayes and Gweneth Ann Rand are glorious too – you can see both interchanged with both Finlay and Bullock to see every nuance of this little miracle. Bravi tutti.


Leave a Comment