Saturday, October 13, 2018

Bluebeard's Castle review: A magnificent art-horror opera exposing a male monster

A woman throws open the doors of Bluebeard's Castle, bringing her closer to his crimes, in Béla Bartók's terrific opera.

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin Theatre Festival
Dates: Oct 12-14

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

“Why did you come with me?” asks Bluebeard, a wealthy man with a violent reputation, joined by a new female companion. Many have wondered the same since Charles Perraut’s 1697 folktale, and again in Béla Bartók’s unnerving opera in 1918, as if the morality story were a cautionary tale for lustful women. 

For his excellent production, director Enda Walsh has treated this attraction as intoxicating, all-consuming love. Joshua Bloom balances his Bluebeard at a curious point of hesitation, as Paula Merrihy’s exaggerated but magnetic Judith, abandoning her groom and family, throws open the locked doors of his miserable castle, bringing her closer to his crimes. That’s an ingenious way of staging Bluebeard’s Castle: the exposing of a male monster.

Whenever Judith opens a door onto a blood-drenched torture chamber or an alarming armoury of weapons, Bartók’s darkly romantic music receives a jolt by the excellent RTÉ Concert Orchestra players. This is an opera that plays to the rhythms of a horror film, but it’s never been particularly gory. 

Instead, Walsh and company rummage through the nightmarish catalogue of expressionist design from 100 years ago. Jamie Vartan’s decadently stone-crumbling set, receding into a vast staircase and carved by Adam Silverman’s lighting, is quite the throwback to Edward Gordon Craig’s ground breaking displays. Throw in Jack Phelan’s extraordinary video design, and I’ve never seen these old-school techniques look so modern.

By revving up the atmosphere as opposed to spilling the blood, this is really a magnificent piece of art-horror. In performance, Merrihy is meticulous in showing the emotional toll that each door brings. Bloom's painstaking Bluebeard agonises with the fear of being exposed. Both are stark pictures of torment.

From the beginning, this old story seems to be reaching into the present. To give his prologue, a child narrator (Elijah O’Sullivan) assembles a microphone speaker just to be heard. “We listen to stories to know what happened,” he says. That suggests there’s something new to learn from Bluebeard. Behind that final door, he has stolen the world. 

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