The Royal Opera – Duke Bluebeard’s Castle & Erwartung [Dohmen, Lang & Denoke]

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – Opera in one act [sung in Hungarian with English surtitles]
Erwartung – Monodrama in one act [sung in German with English surtitles]

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle:
Bluebeard – Albert Dohmen
Judit – Petra Lang

The Woman – Angela Denoke
The Man – Barry Callan [mute role]

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Kirill Petrenko

Willy Decker – Director
Martin Gregor Lütje – Revival Director
John F. Macfarlane – Designer
David Finn – Lighting

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 26 May, 2006
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

It’s a messy place the world – especially in John F. Macfarlane’s set for Willy Decker’s returning double-bill of operatic expressionist horror. The stage is full of piles of rubble – infinitely more successful in Schoenberg’s desolate open landscape, where they substitute for his supposed nocturnal woods, than in the gloomy confines of Bartók’s castle. It was such messiness and the fact that although seven doors are clearly delineated, Judit doesn’t open them in any semblance of order (making nonsense of the text’s reference to specific doors) that dilutes the power of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”.

None of this should matter, although it is indicative of the unsatisfactory nature of Decker’s conception that it niggles so: I would rather have concentrated on the strengths of Petra Lang’s Judit (her trademark beaming grin in the curtain calls so different to the grim determination of her role) and Albert Dohmen’s Bluebeard.

Maybe if the full force of Bartók’s orchestration had been felt I would have worried less, but the orchestral sound seems recessed. Perhaps I’m spoilt with up-close concert performances where Bartók’s music needs no staging to illustrate the Grand Guignol nature of the tale.

No such complaints, though, about “Erwartung”, which marked Angela Denoke’s ROH debut. Here, with a marginally clearer stage and the offending doors at the side removed (the massive one at the back through which Bluebeard’s three earlier wives came, remains for The Woman to peer round), Schoenberg’s nightmarish flip-side to Verklärte Nacht (no idea whether it was conscious or not, but “Erwartung” seems the complete reverse of the earlier work’s hopeful outcome between two lovers) came over with a lucidity both visual and aural, the latter thanks to the fantastic rendition of the score by the Royal Opera House Orchestra.

The softer volume seemed to have more effect here (the force being in Schoenberg’s gritty writing) and matched Angela Denoke’s wonderful and seemingly easy assumption of the vocal lines. To my ears there is little musical difficulty in the score to offend – there is much lyricism and, despite the tale, beauty. Denoke sang, and the musicians played, the music as if it was a Schubert song.

I have to admit that, beyond knowing that the libretto includes detailed ‘stage directions’, I’m not sure how closely Decker mirrored them in his direction of the action. Certainly in using mute Barry Callan as The Man (not allowed for by Schoenberg) that Angela Denoke’s woman is searching for, Decker creates a fleet-footed story-board which captures the emotional twists and turns of the score and the horror of someone – whether actually going through a forest in the night-time or not – undergoing mental anguish.

Finally there is the curious mirror image of putting these two works together. In the first the man murders the woman, in the second the woman murders the man (at least in her mind). Curious stuff for a great night at the opera, but certainly the latter demands to be seen. Top-price tickets are reduced to £50.00.

  • Further performances on 30 May, and 2, 10, 12, 15 & 17 June: the latter two performances with Christine Rice as Judit in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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