Sunday 11 July 2021

Dr Bluebeard will see you now: Gothic Opera remakes Bartok's opera and sets it in an Edwardian sanatorium

Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Gothic Opera (photo Nick Rutter)
Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Gothic Opera (photo Nick Rutter)

Bartok Bluebeard's Castle; Simon Wilding, Alexandra Long, Carmine de Amicis, dir: Julia Mintzer, cond: Thomas Payne; Gothic Opera at Porchester Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 July 2021 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A radical reinterpretation of Bartok's opera with a striking contemporary dance element and imaginative animations

Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Carmine de Amicis, Simon Wilding - Gothic Opera (photo Nick Rutter)
Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle
Carmine de Amicis, Simon Wilding
Gothic Opera (photo Nick Rutter)
In many ways, Bartok's opera A kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard's Castle) is impossible to stage. Bartok put so much of the action (whether literal or metaphorical) in the wonderful music that a semi-staged, concert performance often works best, allowing the direction to concentrate on the relationship between the Duke and his new wife, Judith. So I was very intrigued when, as a follow-up to their radical staging of Marschner's Der Vampyr, Gothic Opera turned its attention to Bartok's opera.

Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle was staged by Gothic Opera at Porchester Hall, directed by Julia Mintzer, conducted by Thomas Payne using an orchestration by Leon Haxby, with Simon Wilding as Bluebeard, Alexandra Long as Judith, with Carmine de Amicis, Alice Usher, Katherine MacRae, and Charlotte Osborn. Designs were by Charles Ogilvie, lighting and sound by Will Alder with animations created by students at Ravensbourne University.

We caught the second of three performnces on 9 July 2021. When we were arrived we were ushered into the faded Edwardian grandeur of the Porchester Hall, swathed in gloom and with mist swirling. The orchestra of organ (Thomas Ang) and string quartet (the Halcyon Quartet - Millie Ashton, Leidy Sinclair, Nathalie Green-Buckley, HeeYeon Cho) was placed on the stage and we were in the body of the hall with a stage-like structure to one side, surrounded by platforms. 

The opera was performed in Hungarian, with the surtitles projected on a screen to one side, and the action started with librettist Béla Balázs' spoken prologue given by unseen speakers. The main action took place in and around the stage structure and when each of the doors opened an animation was displayed on the main screen behind. These were created with students from Ravensbourne University, The Torture Chamber - Virginia Anyalee, The Armoury - Klaudia Graczak, The Treasury - Dev Bye-A-Jee, The Garden - Vincent Sautter and Tony Tyler, The Kingdoms -Oliver O'Keefe.

So far, so intriguing.

But director Julia Mintzer had chosen not to stage Bartok and Balázs' opera, instead giving us a new music-theatre piece which took Bartok's music as its sound-track.

We were in Dr Bluebeard's sanatorium, where he worked with three nurses who are his former wives, Alice Usher as The Morning Nurse, Katherine MacRae as The Noon Nurse, Charlotte Osborn as The Evening Nurse. These three sang vocal lines extracted from the score by Lee Haxby, effectively forming a chorus that echoed and amplified the existing vocal lines.

Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Carmine de Amicis, Alice Usher, Katherine MacRae, Charlotte Osborn- Gothic Opera (photo Nick Rutter)
Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Carmine de Amicis, Alice Usher, Katherine MacRae, Charlotte Osborn- Gothic Opera (photo Nick Rutter)

The main protagonist was The Patient, danced by Carmine de Amicis in his own choreography; De Amicis was also the associate director. The action focused on The Patient's treatment, and the way he gradually identifies with his doctor, Bluebeard (Simon Wilding). Alexandra Long's Judith was Bluebeard's deputy except that, rather confusingly, part of Judith's role was allocated to The Patient (also called Judith) with Long singing whilst De Amicis danced.

Until after the opening of the fifth door, Wilding and Long remained marooned in the gallery high above the action and often in darkness, the staging concentrating on De Amicis' patient and his three nurses. And when Wilding did appear on stage, it was his relationship with Carmine de Amicis' patient that developed. Only at the very end, did Alexandra Long appear and the ending gave her the triumph with Wilding's Bluebeard reduced to nothing.

The programme book included a long article by Julia Mintzer which explained and described the dramaturgy. Frankly, if I hadn't read this then I would have had difficulty understanding what was going on. In a way, the production wasn't radical enough and you felt that to bring this story off (the dramaturgy was created by Mintzer and De Amicis) they had hampered themselves by preserving the integrity of Bartok's score.

Whatever you thought of the new story, and undoubtedly Carmine de Amicis' performance was thrillingly imaginative, not being able to see the singers Simon Wilding and Alexandra Long inhibited the overall performance. We wanted to see the development of their relationship through the music, yet all we had was odd glimpses high above us. This was all the more frustrating as both gave strong, musical performances and projected the Hungarian thrillingly. Long is a young dramatic mezzo-soprano and her sense of the work's musical ark as Judith gains in confidence, and love of Bluebeard, indicated that the role will be one to watch her in. Wilding made Bluebeard even sound sexy, he succeded in creating Bluebeard as a character even though deprived of the essence of Bartok and Balázs' drama.

As I have said, Carmine de Amicis was mesmerising as The Patient. Once you accepted the premise of the drama presented, then his incarnations of each of the doors as one of The Patient's fantasies gave us a striking visual interpretation of Bartok's music (and the way he bled after each episode showcased some striking make-up effects courtesy of Ian Massa-Harris). The animations showed great imagination, and I had wished that we could have had a larger, all-encompasing projection or perhaps more economically multiple screens.

Alice Usher, Katherine MacRae and Charlotte Osborn provided fine support as the three enslaved Nurse-Wives. Leon Haxby's orchestration relied quite heavily on the organ, so though his reduction was effective it took us a bit far from the opera house.

Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Alexandra Long, Simon Wilding - Gothic Opera (photo Nick Rutter)
Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle - Alexandra Long, Simon Wilding - Gothic Opera (photo Nick Rutter)

A lot of work and imagination went into this performance, and in many ways it was a terrific achievement. Musically, Simon Wilding and Alexandra Long were everything I wanted for this opera and I felt frustrated that we were not able to see what they were able to do dramatically with Bluebeard and Judith's original relationship, yet Carmine de Amicis was compelling as The Patient, effectively holding the stage alone for long periods of time. But ultimately, all these disparate parts did not quite add up to a coherent whole. Gothic Opera's debut production was an irreverent and feminist retelling of Marschner's neglected classic, and its for its next production it turns its attention to Gounod's rarely performed La nonne sanglante in what will be the work's UK premiere, and you feel that their approach might work best when not trying to preserve the musical integrity of an undoubted masterpiece.

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