English National Opera’s new production of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára), with John Relyea and Jennifer Johnson, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya

Béla Bartók
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A kékszakállú herceg vára) – opera in one act. Libretto by Balázs after a fairy-tale by Charles Perrault [sung in Hungarian with English surtitles]

Prologue – Leo Bill
Judith – Jennifer Johnson
Duke Bluebreard – John Relyea

English National Opera Orchestra
Lidiya Yankovskaya

Joe Hill-Gibbons – Director
Rosanna Vizr – Designer
Ian Jackson-French – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 21 March, 2024
Venue: English National Opera at the Coliseum, London

Bartók’s only opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is one of the repertoire’s darker stars. It is only an hour long but its disturbing content, of the wife-murdering Duke and Judith his latest conquest, casts a long and timeless shadow. As suggested in the spoken Prologue, it is as much theatre of the mind as of the opera house, and it’s fair to say that lovers of this extraordinary work will probably encounter it more often in the concert hall. The most memorable staging was the Royal Opera’s in a double-bill with Schoenberg’s Erwartung, although neither piece really complemented the other – Bartók’s work, like his ‘hero’, is best left alone, which of course brings big scheduling problems.

Joe Hill-Gibbons’s new staging for ENO was billed as a semi-staged concert performance but had to be abruptly rethought when Allison Cook withdrew, to be replaced by the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, who sang the role of Judith from her score on a stand, while the acting element was taken over by the staff director Crispin Lord, an agile young man whose, presumably improvised, movement and an ambivalent costume – a T-shirt and a skirt – fleshed out Judith’s fatal attraction to Bluebeard. Once you got used to this ‘third’ person, it was astonishing what Lord accomplished, especially the strange effect of externalising Bluebeard’s intense solitude. This was way beyond walking through a part, more a tour-de-force.

The staging was all black drapes, a very long table and many chairs, with the visual element of what was hidden behind the castle’s seven doors presented with basic simplicity – bottles of wine for the omnipresent blood, a mass of noisy cutlery for the armoury – and perhaps less would have been more, but it worked well enough, and the finale, when Bluebeard’s three previous wives (here bumped up to fifteen ENO chorus women) all shrouded in their wedding dresses, was suitably arresting. The Prologue was spoken (very dramatically, in English) by Leo Bill, who stayed on stage as a butler-cum-stagehand.

In concert performances, the score’s orchestral glamour often takes over – and it can be very thrilling – but here the ENO orchestra was subtly at the service of the drama, with Lidiya Yankovskaya (who conducted the ENO staging of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) coaxing a wealth of psychological depth from her players. Jennifer Johnston sounded completely inside Judith’s music, marking the role’s advances and retreats with uncanny dread and expectation – how Bluebeard could resist her love-song after the Lake of Tears door is anyone’s guess. And John Relyea, from his monosyllabic mutterings at the start to his overwhelming hymn of praise to his former wives was in a league of his own, who knows where such singing comes from? For a brief while it felt like ENO in its good times. 

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