Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Bluebeard's Castle - Opera Review

What: Bluebeard's Castle
When: 2 - 10 July 2019
Where: Basement, Mycellium Studios
Composed by: Bela Bartok
Libretto by: Bela Balazs
Directed by: Kate Millett
Conducted by: James Penn
Performed by: Zara Barrett and Adrian Tamburini
Reorchestration by: Kym Dillon
Costumes by: Suzanne Stevens
Lighting by: Jason Bouvaird

Adrian Tamburini and Zara Bennett - photo by Daniel Burke

I love indie opera. I love it more than main stage opera. It is brave and bold and ambitious and comes from a pure love of the art form which is not always true of indie theatre. One of our small indie opera companies, BK Opera, is back with their latest experiment - Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and is being performed for a few dates in July at Mycellium Studios in Brunswick.

Bluebeard's Castle is the only opera Bartok wrote. It is a grand and ambitious exploration of expressionism. Sadly it was judged to be unperformable so it is rarely staged in anything other than concert presentations.

Based on the french tale Bluebeard written by Charles Perrault in 1697, Balazs - with the assistance of Bartok began writing the libretto several years before the opera was completed in 1912. It has been suggested Bartok wrote it in honour of his first wife of 15 years who he had recently jilted for a young piano student. Given the subject matter, this could very well be Bartok working out some of his guilt.

The story in the opera is a little different than the fairy tale although the themes are essentially very close. Expressionism was emerging as a strong artistic movement in those turbulent European years and opera is a perfect vehicle for an art influence which focuses on a subjective and distorted effect, usually to express negative emotions.

Bluebeard's Castle only has 2 characters - Bluebeard (Tamburini) and Judith (Barrett). It is worth noting that the term 'bluebearding' was commonly known as a man who kills his wives. With such an economical cast you would think this opera would almost be saturating the market. Unfortunately Bartok wrote the music with massive orchestration and there is literally no action on stage - thus being considered unperformable. Having said that, it is short (just over an hour) so with some clever modern staging and technology I don't think those problems are insurmountable.

The great genius of this presentation of Bartok's only opera is the electronic reorchestration of the score by Dillon. The start of the music (after 'The Prologue of The Bard') is quite shocking with it's ethereal inorganic sounds. My plus one mentioned he felt like he was about to watch Flash Gordon which is appropriate because only a few years before composing this opera Bartok had attended the premier of Strauss' Also Zach Zarathustra.

The score seems thin at the beginning, but as the story unfolds it grows and grows until we are consumed by the polytonal movements - one for each of the 7 rooms Judith explores. Much is made of Bartok's use of the minor second (known as the 'blood' music) to register Judith's shock on noticing the beauteous riches of each room are dripping with blood and I think it is even more present in this synthsized orchestration.

Whoever agrees to sing the roles of Bluebeard's Castle are very brave and incredibly competent - they have no choice and nowhere to hide if it goes wrong. Luckily, in the hands of Tamburini and Barrett we are safe. Both are master singers, and both demonstrated a deeply complex internal life as the tragedy unfolds.

Luckily, in the Basement space of the Mycellium Studios, the audience and performers have an intimate connection and we could see the tears as they swelled, the flashes of rage, the yearning for a simple and uncomplicated love. Less fortunately this was not reflected in their bodies or the direction (Millett).

I know the opera is written very static in it's staging but there are tricks which could make it at least have some small variations. The 7 rooms could all have a slightly different point on the horizon. The actors could have some sort of circling to indicate they are coming to another door. There is a glorious backdrop of bedazzled and bejewelled riches across the stage which could be staggered across the depth so that - at least occassionally - the tableaux could shift to give the audience something to excite the eyes.

Bouvaird does his best to create texture and movement in the space, but he is somewhat hamstrung by practicalities. The Basement is one of those spaces with no 3-phase power so there are practical limitations to the lighting. Having said that, Bouvaird has placed lighting trees and birdies in strategic positions around the space which could create angles and architecture. Unfortunately he is using mostly fresnels rather than profiles so he ends up lighting the walls more so than the performers. Their static placement between two columns also unfortunately puts them in the one place he can't hit them with side light.

Bouvaird uses his usual palette of bold colours - particularly orange, red and blue - which bring emotion to the whitewashed basement which gives us something to look at. When lighting opera though, you have to pay attention to what the music is doing. Bartok creates a key plan which travels from F# to C to F# which are allegorical of the amount of light in the castle (and in Bluebeard's life). I would have liked to see some of that come through in the lighting design.

The costuming (Stevens) is problematic. Tamburini has a cartoonish fake blue beard which works with the expressionism of the piece, but Barrett is dressed like a Disney princess? She is also wearing a wig which is not well applied and when the performers are this close to the audience you just can't do that. We see everything. And given that nothing happens and no-one moves it means we see it for every minute of that just over an hour show.

BK Opera like taking on lesser famed opera composers and I really admire Bluebeard's Castle for what it does and for showing Melbourne audiences an opera the major companies are unlikely to ever present. I also think with a few staging tweaks it will be a strong show. I don't think Millett has moved the show away from it's standard themes of the dangers of curiosity, but I do think she has achieved the goal stated in the program of 'focussing on the power dynamics between the couple'. I am less convinced Judith is stripped of her humanity though, and feel Bluebeard has his chance of happiness stolen from him.

Don't take my word for it. Instead, take a risk and decide for yourself. There are a couple more dates at the Mycellium Studios in July and then a proposed remount at Northcote Town Hall in August. Give it a shot. Bluebeard's Castle is very surprising.

2 Stars

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