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Bluebeard’s Castle, at Stone Nest in Soho, London

Bartok composed Bluebeard’s Castle, a 60-minute opera for two performers, in the “expressionist” style in 1911 for a competition which it did not win and had to wait until 1918 for its first performance. It was not seen in the UK until 1957.

It is a darkly symbolic work with a rich, sensuous and superlatively orchestrated score.

Bluebeard’s CastleIn the original staging, Bluebeard brings his new wife, Judith, home to his castle which has seven doors and no windows. Wishing to dispel the darkness, Judith asks for the keys to the doors, discovering behind them a torture chamber, armoury, a rose garden etc, all defiled with blood. Behind the seventh door, she finds Bluebeard’s previous wives…

In Theatre of Sound’s production at Stone Nest the seven doors are dispensed with, the director, Daisy Evans, opting instead for a large chest which is opened once. This works less well than it should because the English version by the director herself, and sung with perfect clarity by Michael Mayes, keeps referring to ‘the doors’.

Daisy Evans herself says that her production “reimagines… as a love story between a long-married couple, coming to terms with living with dementia”. It is set on an intimate thrust stage using a split level set and with the sextet accompanying behind the audience. The opera has been re-orchestrated and is conducted by Stephen Higgins and is in fact very successful, especially as played by members of the London Sinfonietta.

The production is greatly aided by subtle yet imaginative lighting design by Jake Wiltshire, helping establish the mood of the piece and at times lighting all of Stone Nest, a former chapel, with vivid colours.

American Michael Mayes is Bluebeard and is superb in every way. He is a real singing actor, blessed with a gloriously rich bass-baritone voice and a perfect technique that ensures that his singing never sounds at all strained and has a wonderful glowing tone throughout its compass. He does not just sing however, he uses the words intelligently and imaginatively to portray his role, as well as using his physicality to express what he means – often very subtly. As I have already intimated, his enunciation is well nigh perfect and his final monologue is very moving. He has that rare quality – charisma: you have to watch him!

The Northampton born soprano Gweneth Ann Rand is Judith, seemingly not yet quite at home in the role. She concentrated more on beauty of expression rather than enunciation of the words, and seemed most at ease in the role when seated.

The ensemble (Bukelwa Kunene, Lizzie Frain, Ruchika Jain, Eliza Beth Stevens, John Kamau) who the director used as examples of Bluebeard’s past loves and family, must be congratulated on their stillness and never doing too much: they all greatly aided the atmosphere of the production.

Not, perhaps, a production for “opera newbies”, but certainly one giving much food for thought, even if the dementia element could have been made clearer.

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

A new partnership between long-time collaborators Daisy Evans and Stephen Higgins who have a shared passion and vision for presenting opera in new and exciting ways, Theatre of Sound will foster a free flow of artistic ideas across genres and art forms to create intimate, inclusive and innovative experiences of opera for people of all backgrounds. It will launch in November 2021 with a brand new and immersive production of Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, co-produced by Opera Ventures and in partnership with Stone Nest.

Turning the Gothic thriller on its head, the story will be retold through the lens of a family living with dementia in a staged production at Stone Nest, a stunning former Welsh chapel in the heart of London’s West End, from 4th -14th November. For an audience of up to 200, this intimate re-imagining of the opera for chamber orchestra promises to take audiences on a unique theatrical experience that will place them at the heart of the action. It will also mark the first time a staged opera production has taken place in front of an audience at Stone Nest.

CREATIVE
Director Daisy Evans
Conductor Stephen Higgins
Design Adrian Linford
Lighting Design Jake Wiltshire
Sound Design Max Pappenheim
Judith Susan Bullock / Gweneth Ann Rand
Bluebeard Gerald Finley / Michael Mayes
https://www.theatreofsound.org/

Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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