Barrie Kosky’s intriguing double bill of Purcell and Bartók in Frankfurt

GermanyGermany Purcell, Bartók: Soloists, Frankfurt Opera Chorus (chorus director: Tilman Michael), Frankfurt Opern- und Museumsorchester / Benjamin Reiners (conductor). Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurt, 5.6.2022. (MB)

Dido and Aeneas (c) Barbara Aumüller

Director: Barrie Kosky
Revival director: Alan Barnes
Designs: Katrin Lea Tag
Lighting: Joachim Klein
Dramaturgy: Zsolt Horpácsy


Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Cecelia Hall
Aeneas – Sebastian Geyer
Belinda – Kateryna Kasper
Second Woman – Karolina Bengtsson
Sorceress – Dmitry Egorov
First Witch – Elizabeth Reiter
Second Witch – Karolina Makuła
Spirit, Sailor – Carlos Andrés Cárdenas

Bluebeard’s Castle
Bluebeard – Nicholas Brownlee
Judith – Claudia Mahnke
Prologue (on tape) – Benedek Salgo

The operatic double-bill presents problems and opportunities — like any staged event, one might say, though there are of course specific cases for, even vis-à-vis spoken theatre. First, at least in most instances, comes the question of what to programme together, that is assuming one has rejected the obvious solution of leaving a shortish one-act opera on its own. Practices change: we now rarely programme Salome or Elektra with another work, although once this was far from uncommon. Bluebeard’s Castle is more often heard in concert, which permits a broader range of companion pieces; in the theatre, it has also attracted ballets and even concert works, Katie Mitchell’s recent Munich staging having been presented with Bartók’s own Concerto for Orchestra. Another companion, at Salzburg, Covent Garden and the Met, has been Erwartung: the timings work well, as do the complementary dramatic trajectories. In New York, Jessye Norman played both Judith and The Woman, quite a feat. Dido and Aeneas has likewise had various operatic partners, as well as none; in 2009 there was ENO’s After Dido, again directed by Mitchell, presenting the opera within a larger theatre piece. Only last month, I saw an HGO performance paired with John Blow’s Venus and Adonis. In our enclosed musical world, ‘early music’ all too often siphoned off as a thing-in-itself, rarely to be performed with modernist works, or even on the same instruments, one interesting dramatic solution can rarely if ever have been attempted before: Bluebeard and Dido, both treatments of a proud woman’s fate. Step forward Oper Frankfurt and Barrie Kosky, in their 2010 production (taken to the 2013 Edinburgh Festival), now revived in Frankfurt for the fourth time.

A further major question lies in how far to connect the stagings and performances. Calixto Bieito’s pairing of Bluebeard with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi for Kosky’s home territory of the Komische Oper Berlin presented what we might think of as a strong yet subtle combination of the two, leading connection not only through scenery but action and ideas, without forcing it. Kosky seems more content to let us do the work: no bad thing necessarily, and it may (more or less) simply reflect the differences between the works. The closest I could come to a guiding thread was use of space, physical and metaphysical. When Dido opens, we see a crowded bench, somewhat cramped, with what may be a theatre audience, or at any rate a representation of the cast and (postmodern?) society featured. There is stereotypical Kosky action, whose silliness will irritate or not according to persuasion, albeit in more of an alienating, even Brechtian way than twelve years later one might expect from him. There is, of course, cross-dressing — but in a fun slant on such gender bending, it is unclear whether the female singers who play witches (as well as countertenor Dmitry Egorov as the Sorceress) are male or female; at least it was to me. I only discovered when they sang. And in that sense, there is some impression given that liberation from a claustrophobia that stands somewhat at odds, presumably on purpose, with our post-Virgilian idea of Carthage is through music, through dance, through human (and theatrical) activity. The loneliness felt in the case of Dido and Aeneas alone on the vast expanse of the bench comes as contrast, yet within an overall sense of constriction. It is perhaps a reinvention of the classical AMOR/ROMA dilemma, not without metatheatrical elements born of, yet far from enslaved by, the old English court masque.

Bluebeard’s Castle (c) Barbara Aumüller

With Bluebeard, by contrast, where one would expect to see visual, if opulent constraint, within the castle, the stage is wide-open, though its tilting revolve, leading nowhere, provides necessary boundaries. The important thing here, I think, is that nothing is overladen with attempts, necessarily unsuccessful, to conjure visually the riches of what we hear. There is good reason this opera is often given in concert. Like Bieito, Kosky understands Bluebeard as a game of sado-masochism. It is played out with restraint, though certainly not without action, simply making every action, more symbolist than realist, count. And it is open, like the stage, permitting to make what one will. Doubles of different ages come and go, participate and do not; but it is clear where the drama truly lies.

Benjamin Reiners registered the orchestral action most strongly in Bartók, seemingly afraid to trust Purcell at what we can still with good reason consider his word, notwithstanding the complexities of textual issues three centuries on. Leading the excellent Frankfurt Opern- und Museumsorchester, Reiners traced the ebb and flow of Bartók’s score with dramatic wisdom, absorbing the fascination of detail within longer-term hearing (and playing), not unlike what we saw played out above. If lacking the razor precision and strength of tonal association of the finest accounts, there was no reasonable room for complaint here, especially with Nicholas Brownless and Claudia Mahnke on stage. Their commanding, utterly involved performances seemingly took us to the limits, straining at something beyond, again just like Bartók’s (and Béla Balázs’s) drama. Within those limits, all manner of variegation made its point just as strongly. Bluebeard’s deep, damaged vulnerability came as powerfully to the fore as Judith’s complex death wish, caught within the dictates of fate.

When it came to Purcell, Reiners (and, to a certain extent, the orchestra) seemed more uncertain, aping what we have come to know, rightly or wrongly, as ‘period style’ without making the case for it. The results often sounded arbitrary, more fashionable than grounded, resorting to peculiar distractions so as not to sound too archaeological and thereby emerging as neither fish nor fowl, not even an alchemical combination of both. I do not think I have ever, in any variety of performance, heard the second section of the overture taken at anything like such a speed. One may quibble with the suggestion by the Victorian editor (and composer) George McFarren of ‘Allegro moderato’, though it seems sensible enough to me; a modern Presto merely sounded bizarre. Other sections came across as listless, lacking necessary underpinning of harmonic rhythm. Peculiar Luftpausen were frequently inserted into vocal lines, solo and choral; whether this were a feature of the production or simply the performance, I am not entirely sure, though I had a distinct impression, so well staged were they, that it may have been the former. At any rate, they served little musical — nor, for that matter, dramatic — purpose, though some will doubtless have felt differently. Likewise addition of recorder, oboe, and percussion. (The same people who scream blue murder at a great name from the past ‘taking liberties’ with early music seem strangely content with far more musically arbitrary practice such as this, so long as vibrato is minimised and/or ‘period instruments’ are employed.)

A good deal, though, was redeemed by the singing. Cecilia Hall and Sebastian Geyer made for a captivating, ill-fated pair, who used Kosky’s staging (and Alan Barnes’s evidently attentive revival direction) as a fine springboard for their own thoughtful interpretations of mood, action, and overall trajectory. Kateryna Kasper’s Belinda, Karolina Bengtsson’s Second Woman, and Egorov’s aforementioned Sorceress, all impressed in detailed performances highly invested in music, words, and gesture. The chorus responded similarly well to demands both of score and production. Much, then, to enjoy — and on which to ponder.

Mark Berry

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