I believe strongly in recycling one’s rubbish, so when the curtain went up for Bluebeard, I was pleased to see the ROH were re-using the pile of rubble from Götterdämmerung earlier in the year. Or maybe it was left over from some building work? Anyway, it was spread all over the stage (along with a huge broken chandelier – from Phantom of the Opera?), and I was initially concerned that Albert Dohmen (Duke Bluebeard) and Christine Rice (Judit) would trip over a plank and skewer themselves on a rusty nail or something, but happily they were sure of foot.
This may sound like I’m being rude about the visual aspect of the performance. I’m not; it was actually really effective. The castle walls and doors were fairly plain and sombre, but the way different coloured lights were used could change the character each time a door was opened, and there was a real sense that the castle itself was alive, and malignant, almost another character, conspiring in the ill doings of its master. If you’ve read the novel House of Leaves, you may have an idea of what I’m getting at. There was a stunning visual moment at the opening of the 5th door, when the walls slid apart to reveal a huge moon, and it was very effective (if not very subtle) that the 7th door seemed to appear from nowhere to loom hugely over a tiny Judit. (Dead psychological, innit.)
The orchestra were on good form as usual, and while I always find myself involuntarily listening out for the woodwind, in this performance I also particularly noticed the percussion section, who had plenty of interesting stuff to do.
The singing, to me, seemed of very high quality, and while I probably wouldn’t rush out to see anything purely on the strength of Dohmen or Rice, I’d be pleased to hear them again. I don’t know this opera well enough to really comment on their portrayal of the characters, but I did rather like the way Dohmen seemed to add just a slight touch of wry humour to Bluebeard, in his deadpan delivery of lines like ‘My castle does NOT sparkle’ and ‘Yes, that is my torture chamber’. I wish they hadn’t dressed him in a dreary office worker’s suit and tie, though.
A while back I was discussing the Bluebeard concept with a friend, and he said he thought of it as very much ‘a bloke’s opera’, pointing out that it’s a resonant (even archetypal) story – a man starts a relationship with a woman, and it’s going well until she starts digging in his past. She keeps hassling him to know more and more, even though it makes her jealous and eventually ruins it all. A man needs his privacy. However, although I can understand that interpretation, I think the gender of the characters is incidental, and could equally well apply the other way around. After all, it wouldn’t be such an unusual story if a woman started a relationship with a man, and at first he thinks she’s perfect, but then he is irrationally horrified when he finds out that she has a past, and loved other men before him (some probably with bigger knobs than him, too) and maybe done other stuff that he doesn’t approve of… People’s histories. Jealousy. Total inability to just let things lie. And a castle that drips blood. Excellent stuff.
And then, in the second half, Erwartung. This was using the same set as Bluebeard ended with, which is slightly cheeky, as Schoenberg was apparently particularly insistent that the forest should be represented naturalistically (i.e. a forest, not a pile of rubble, a chandelier and a big door). It did work, though, and to be honest, not knowing the work whatsoever, I wasn’t sure if The Woman (Angela Denoke) was literally wandering round a forest at night being scared by stuff, whether she was dreaming, semi-dreaming, hallucinating or just barking mad. Having read up on it afterwards, I now know that she was literally supposed to be in a forest, but that the bloke in black who was wandering round with her and occasionally grabbing at her isn’t actually doing so in the original. Now I understand why people were talking about there being ‘a twist’: The Woman happens to find a sword lying around (one of Bluebeard’s) and carries it around, occasionally stabbing at dark shapes in the forest that scare her, one of which happens to be Bloke in Black, which is a quite valid explanation of why she should later discover his corpse on the ground. The fact that the two characters were dressed like Judit and Bluebeard was probably not necessary for the drawing of parallels, but worked.
I really liked the sound of Denoke’s voice, especially in the lower register. The music, although pleasant, I have to say really didn’t grab me hugely, so I’d be very interested to hear her sing something else, quite different, in the future.