Dido and Aeneas & Bluebeard’s Castle – Oper Frankfurt

This review should appear in due course on Opera Britannia.

Dido and Aeneas & Bluebeard’s Castle – Oper Frankfurt, Edinburgh International Festival
Festival Theatre – 25 August 2013

Rating: ★★★★☆

“Please note, ” said the notice on the way into the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, “this performance contains smoke, water-based haze, fog and nudity.”

What they didn’t warn us of was that we were in for an exquisitely stylish double-bill with fine singing, precise direction and sharp acting. Oper Frankfurt are to be commended for creating an unexpectedly coherent evening from two very different works.

Blackout. The curtain rises. Slowly, oh so slowly, the light returns, and we find the cast of Dido and Aeneas sitting stock still in silence on a long stage-wide bench in front of a concertina curtain at the front of the stage. They are arrayed in a glorious muddle of dress and undress from different ages. They stare out. The entire company stock still and staring. There is silence. More silence than is comfortable. Then the overture begins and then Belinda leans forward and sings.

The start (and as we shall see, the end) of this production of Dido and Aeneas was hugely accomplished. The tiniest gestures becoming utterly captivating.

Keteryna Kasper’s Belinda was pert and perky and with a voice to match. As she attempted to comfort Queen Dido she had an obvious sense of fun and a lightness of vocal technique that would have brought anyone out of the doldrums.

Dido herself, resplendent in pink was centre-stage in every possible way. Paula Murrihy gave a knockout performance, perfectly negotiating the all the territory between haughty disdain and high-jinks. She had a versatile voice to match her dominance of the stage too.

The Queen certainly perked up when Aeneas turned up and it was no surprise that she did. Sebastian Geyer’s Aeneas was handsome if a little high-maintenance. His voice was rich and powerful enough though his was the only voice that was obviously not that of a native English speaker. However, his delicious hard consonants (looK, forsooK and so on) did much to make one overlook his Germanic affection for vat his Qveen might do. In any case, Aeneas is supposed to be a foreign prince anyway.

There was a lot going on in the chorus. Somewhere in the mix a comedy Adam and Eve were wandering around the Queen’s court dressed in floppy hats and little else. Along with the rest of the chorus they ended up for quite a lot of the action singing from the shallow pit, by the orchestra, yet still very much on show and given to gibbering wildly, standing on chairs or sitting stock still and staring again.

The conniving baddies of the piece were three trangendered camp harpies in the form of three counter-tenors Martin Wölfel, Dmitry Egorov and Roland Schneider. Wölfel just had the slightly piercing evil edge on the other two but they made a formidable trio.

Barry Kosky’s direction was assured, intelligent and interesting throughout. Never tempted to explain what was going on, he simply offered scenes which the audience recognised. Grief and sadness, shrieks of young love, jealousy and ultimately death were played out and often played for laughs. This is a funnier Dido than I could have expected.

It was also sadder too. By the time we got to Dido’s Lament, she was alone on the stage. Whilst she sang her heart out (one felt almost literally) there was absolute stillness from the rest of the cast. Yet once she was done, the most dramatic action of the evening began. During the subsequent final chorus With Drooping Wings, Dido began to die before our eyes and the chorus began to leave through the side doors.

One expects an opera diva to die with a heaving bosom and a trill upon on her lips. This Dido died a real death for us, gasping, retching and clutching at thin air she seemed to slowly disintegrate. And all the while, the chorus and then the orchestra departed from the pit and walked out of the theatre. This was, like everything else, perfectly timed, the last performer leaving after playing the penultimate note. The final resolution happened only in our heads. Dido gasped. Silence. Dido stared. Silence. Dido gasped again. Silence. Dido collapsed. Blackout.

This was a completely assured performance that one simply didn’t want to end.

After the interval, things took on a much darker tone with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Once again, the curtain rose in silence. This time we saw the principle couple frozen in an almost-embrace, standing on a vast lunar circle in a stage that was otherwise completely empty. All the side and back walls and stage equipment were visible. Notwithstanding the early warning about nudity, one had not quite expected the theatre itself to be so suddenly stripped of its modesty.

A whispered, pre-recorded prologue asked us to consider whether the stage was real or inside our heads. The conceit of showing us the stage almost completely empty suddenly brought home that question. It was obvious that this was going to be an interested psychological examination of a work that cannot be anything but an interior journey.

I’ve always thought of Bluebeard as one of the great bullies of the operatic repertoire and Judith as an abused victim. This production challenged that considerably. Judith certainly fought back a good deal and one was left seeing a bitter battle of the sexes play out. Even more intriguingly, of course, is that whilst their relationship degenerated before one’s eyes on a stark, vast stage, one’s mind was still full of the fripperies of the Carthaginian court of the first half. Somehow the contrasts between these two such disparate works started to make sense. What we were exploring was the strange twilight world of heterosexuality. Strange and complex are human relationships and none so strange and complex as that between Bluebeard and Judith, also known as man and woman, Dido and Aeneas and yes, Adam and Eve.

As the drama between the couple played out, the moon-white disc on which they were marooned began to revolve. It was the only scenery we got. As in the first half of the evening, a fabulous lighting design by Joachim Klein told us all we needed to know.

This was a Bluebeard’s Castle stripped of any real set. No doors. No coloured light. Everything had to happen inside our heads and it is a tribute to all concerned that this theatre of the mind worked so well.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner had a voice that was incredibly dark and sorrowful. She brought to Judith an unexpected feistiness that had real edge. This was particularly on show when using the lower register of her voice – phrase after phrase an accusation against her man.

Bluebeard himself, Robert Hayward was her perfect match. His bass-baritone had a somehow lonesome quality. Though he was often next to her on the stage, one felt that he was always alone and always would be.

The score is a challenge for any singers. There’s a great deal of hard work to be engaged in just in order to reach over the fullness of the orchestra. There were no worries here. Baumgartner and Hayward squabbled their way into the minds of the audience each perfectly capable of capturing not only our affections but also kindling our fears.

With just the two singing principles and no chorus, much of the texture comes from the pit. Constantinos Carydis did not disappoint. His conducting took a large orchestra to great heights. The great climax of the opening of the fifth door of the castle was simply vast, spacious playing. Fine work from the brass section enhanced an already powerful sound.

Meanwhile on stage, other Bluebeards had appeared. As though conjuring up avatars of himself, he kept on appearing in multiple form. Though only one sang, the others were clearly him too. And they represented the opening of the doors with one minimalist theatrical trick after another. The lake of tears was represented by water dripping from the Bluebeards’s hands. The treasury by glittering gold-dust caught by Judith and cast about in the light all around the stage. Whilst the orchestra were having their fifth door moment, sudden plumes of smoke engulfed the four Bluebeards who stood stock still with all the drama being created by swirling grey vapours. The effect was stunning and showed how much interior drama can be created with simple ideas done well.

When the other wives were eventually produced, three women dressed as Judith appeared. They each found their Bluebeard as we realised that the avatars were his earlier selves. Each Bluebeard embraced his Judith and they rocked backwards and forwards in time, each trying to make things better.

Ultimately, Judith ended back in same frozen embrace that we found her in. Clearly, this journey was cyclical and one from which there was no end.

Oper Frankfurt took some great risks in bringing these two operas together on one evening. Barrie Kosky somehow allowed each to shine whilst allowing interesting questions to arise. The ultimate effect was enthralling. Kosky’s intelligence enlightened his audience. One can scarcely ask for more from a director.

Four stars