Duke Bluebeard’s Castle & Erwartung: Revisted

Written by: Rob Pennock

When you couple these two works you enter into a kaleidoscopic world of Freudian psychology, Symbolist imagery and folk-lore; composed only two years apart, they also make natural partners for a double-bill.

With ‘Bluebeard’ there are several and often overlapping interpretations of its meaning: is the Duke psychotic or a man who knows what he is capable of and yet seeks redemption through his new wife and thus is reluctant to give Judit the keys? Does Judit love him despite her fear of him? Are the doors keys to her psyche, to his, or both? Or are they of more universal significance? Is she his Anima, merely a projection of elements of his own ego? Musically, the work is the antithesis of the Schoenberg in being largely tonal – “Erwartung” is the first piece of atonal music theatre.

“Erwartung” is a monodrama written in only 17 days. It has provoked both extensive speculation as to whether ‘The Woman’ is based on one or more of Freud’s case studies in hysteria and obsession with the idea that the forest in which she emotes represents female genitilia, the huge mushrooms phalluses. Certainly, Schoenberg gave detailed stage directions stating that the forest should be naturalistic and The Woman’s fear of it obvious. The score itself is littered with markings, including 117 tempo changes (in a thirty-minute work!). But (and it is a big ‘but’) is “Erwartung” anything other than a scena for voice and orchestra?

Director Willy Decker seeks to unify the works by using virtually the same set for both. In Bluebeard, six doors dominate the set with a huge seventh at the rear; debris from the castle is strewn across the stage while a massive chandelier hangs at the rear right. Bluebeard is dressed in black and Judit in blood red. In “Erwartung”, Judit becomes The Woman (a different singer, though) in the same red dress and Bluebeard (it seems to me) remains present and depicted as the predatory lover she will eventually kill.

In “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”, the effect is massive and powerfully evocative, the chandelier evincing both decay and malevolence; as each door is opened, coloured light streams in which turns blood red. At the climax, as the fifth door is opened, the rear of the stage shows a huge golden orb; the three former brides enter and leave with Judit through the huge rear door.

Unfortunately this stage design doesn’t work in “Erwartung”. The side doors are gone, as is any sense of the suffocating atmosphere of a forest; the set is too open and the lighting is too uniform in its dank greyness. Certainly the text, with all its references to organic nature, is completely at odds with the set; there is little sense of a human-being in crisis.

The fundamental problem lies in the Bartók being based on folklore and the complex interaction of two humans, which can – like anything – be interpreted in a Freudian manner, whereas the Schoenberg is explicitly Freudian and heavily influenced by German Symbolist poetry, but there is simply nothing to suggest that one leads to the other. There is also a problem in reversing the usual playing order, thereby leaving the audience with a sense of emotional anticlimax. More seriously, perhaps, Decker doesn’t convince that the work is indeed anything other than an old-fashioned operatic scena.

Musically, things are more consistent. In ‘Bluebeard’, Petra Lang lacks the power of the greatest Judits; a greater range of tone-colours would help, as would a more searching approach to the text. Nevertheless, she is as good as anything you are likely to find in our vocally challenged times. Albert Dohmen has a tightly controlled bass-baritone voice which effortlessly rides the orchestra up to a high F, and he makes rather more of the text than his partner, although he too needs a greater range of colour.

In “Erwartung”, Angela Denoke makes light of a vocally challenging part; Schoenberg’s leaps and intervals consequently sound completely natural and even beautiful, although she fails to convey true angst and horror. Everything is just too controlled.

Despite the soloists’ lacking that last ounce of individuality, Kirill Petrenko’s conducting is superb, with the first three doors of ‘Bluebeard’ needing more rhythmic control and edge and the numerous glissandos perhaps benefiting from greater variety. The Schoenberg is better, being exquisitely shaded, with every short rhythmic and melodic strand spontaneously shaped and each tonally coruscating climax given its true weight. The large orchestra plays superbly with immaculate ensemble and intonation.

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