Duke Bluebeard’s Castle semi-staged but calamity strikes ENO as soprano withdraws at the eleventh hour

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle: Soloists, Orchestra of the English National Opera / Lidiya Yankovskaya (conductor). London Coliseum, 21.3.2024. (JR)

Crispin Lord (Judith acting), John Relyea (Bluebeard) and ENO Chorus © Nirah Sanghani

Director – Joe Hill-Gibbons
Designer – Rosanna Vize
Lighting designer – Ian Jackson-French
Costume designer  – Sarah Bowern

Prologue – Leo Bill
Duke Bluebeard – John Relyea
Judith – Jennifer Johnston

You do have to feel sorry for English National Opera: and I am not (this time) referring to the Arts Council’s decision. Disaster struck only hours before this first (of only two) semi-staged concert performances of Bartok’s masterpiece short one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. For those who don’t know the opera, there are only two singers (after a spoken Prologue) and one of the singers, the mezzo-soprano Allison Cook, fell ill on the day of the performance. The programmes had already been printed (there was not even time to give the audience a biography of her replacement). Panic button pressed and ENO were more than fortunate to be able to fly in soprano Jennifer Johnston, who has sung the part with the Oslo Philharmonic under Klaus Mäkelä (and with Gerald Finley, no less, as Bluebeard) and was also scheduled in 2022 to sing the part with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Domingo Hindoyan, but then she withdrew because of illness. Johnston, then, whilst no stranger to the role and the Hungarian text, but with only a two-hour rehearsal could not know the intricate stage movements. So. in stepped Staff Director Crispin Hill to walk the part, dressed in an androgynous white shift and barefoot. This added an added dimension to the opera, and gave it an unusual homoerotic flavour, which was certainly not part of either the producer’s or composer’s concept. Could they not find a female walker, one asked? As Bluebeard ardently embraced the male walker, Judith sang almost motionless from her score and music stand on the sidelines. This did rather detract from the power of the opera but musically it was a triumph.

I am not entirely sure what a semi-staged concert performance of an opera is supposed to be: this was much more than a concert performance (even with the stand-in) and more than a semi-staged performance. There was a fairly simple set (a long dining table and chairs, but no backdrop), and many props, bouquets of blood-strewn flowers, golden confetti (the jewels), red wine bottles disgorging sticky blood, canteens of cutlery to evoke weapons and, finally, a bevy (fifteen!) of rather ghoulish former wives in their wedding gowns. The actor, Leo Bill, who spoke the Prologue remained on stage to act as Bluebeard’s butler, provided the props.

The Prologue was delivered, in front of the curtain rather than offstage, in English. Whilst this was undoubtedly effective, and introduced the audience to what was to follow, I was expecting it in Hungarian, which makes it sound all the darker and more menacing. Linguistically, this was a muddled performance as the opera itself was sung in Hungarian, the ENO having seemingly given up long ago on its mission of delivering all operas in English, now that surtitles are omnipresent. I am no expert on the (difficult) Hungarian language, and have no doubt the text was clearly and well delivered, but I do enjoy and prefer the sound of the language, part of the soundworld Bartók was creating, when delivered by native speakers and singers, and this was missing from this performance: it adds to the mystery and horror of the piece.

Jennifer Johnston (Judith singing), Crispin Lord (Judith acting) and John Relyea (Bluebeard) © Nirah Sanghani

Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea has sung and recorded Bluebeard under Esa-Pekka Salonen and Edward Gardner (with the Bergen Philharmonic) to great acclaim. His characterful performance is a tour de force, sonorous, warm, convincing, in a word – magnificent. Johnston kept a close watch on the conductor at all times and was certainly a match for Relyea: her top C scream of amazement when the fifth door opened was spot-on.

The American-Russian conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya, is a fiercely committed advocate for Slavic masterpieces and was impressive in the main (the quieter sections calling for more delineation). There was plenty of discordant bite, and sufficient power when the fifth door was opened to reveal Bluebeard’s vast kingdom. The orchestra rose to the occasion, impeccable playing across the board.

As one punter put it as we emerged onto St. Martin’s Lane, ‘How dare they disband an orchestra like that, it’s simply a disgrace’. Agreed.

John Rhodes

1 thought on “<i>Duke Bluebeard’s Castle</i> semi-staged but calamity strikes ENO as soprano withdraws at the eleventh hour”

  1. I have not seen this production but I am puzzled by fifteen former wives in it. Béla Balázs’s poetic text – which Bartók respected and faithfully followed in his musical realisation – very clearly specifies three former wives before Judit. When opening the final (seventh) door, Bluebeard tells in beautiful poetic language how he met each of the previous three wives (at dawn, noon and evening) and how much they meant to him. Fifteen former wives should go to another show, not into the Bartók-Balázs opera.


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