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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Bartók, Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg, Erwartung: soloists, orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Kirill Petrenko. 26.05.06 (ED)

Duke Bluebeard's Castle:
Sung in Hungarian with English surtitles
Duke Bluebeard: Albert Dohmen
Judit: Petra Lang

Sung in German with English surtitles
The Woman: Angela Denoke
The Man: Barry Callan (mute role)

Director: Willy Decker
Designs: John F. Macfarlane
Lighting: David Finn




In many ways Bartók’s only opera and Schoenberg’s monodrama fit well together; and their pairing pays dividends, given that in retrospect the web of links between the two works grows ever more complex. Neither composer, or their respective works for that matter, should be thought of as easily approachable in any sense and these stagings pull few punches. To emphasise the fragility of the human states portrayed here, Willy Decker places both works in a setting that recalls a bombed-out Berlin or Dresden. Heightened human faculties such as intellect or morality lie smashed in the ruins of depravity as the set-dominating chandelier lies in the debris. That’s the extent of subtlety here.

Bluebeard leads his new wife Judit over a threshold that is scarcely more than rubble and at that moment their troubles begin. Judit peels away the layers of Bluebeard’s secret world by opening the doors of his castle to let in light, or rather to bring the truth behind the rumours circulating about him into the open. Doing so with such determination seals her own incarceration behind the seventh door. That Bluebeard does little or nothing to prevent the inevitable happening is itself necessary of course, given that it allows him to corner his unmasker in the opera's final moments and to preserve his secret in endless night.


Initial fears that both singers would be spending more time watching their step rather than exploring the dark recesses of Bartók’s sound world soon subsided. Petra Lang’s Judit must be counted amongst the most persuasive roles in her repertoire. Bringing to it all of the required impetuousness, sureness of purpose and sharp intellect that lies just under role’s all too innocent surface (not to mention incisive timing, musicality and a remarkable linguistic aptitude) she proves that for her, Judit is no mere girl in a red dress dragged in from the night.

Beside such a dominating assumption, one that has developed through long experience, Albert Dohmen’s Duke Bluebeard lacked definition. Textual nuances, pitch and timing all showed prominent weaknesses, whilst his acting dithered between the minimal or the extremely involved. The orchestra handled Bartók’s writing knowingly, even though the wind section appeared inexplicably amplified. Kirill Petrenko displayed a keen ear for sonority and fine judgement of the work’s internal dynamics.

Sonority and dynamic judgement are not as persuasively found in Petrenko’s reading of Erwartung. Schoenberg’s material is far denser than Bartók’s and is thus much less open to characterisation. This has led some to suggest that all one needs to do is play the piece at the marked tempi and dynamics to ensure everything is in place. In practice, it’s not quite that simple.

Employing largely the same set, though with it’s debris partially rearranged, Schoenberg’s Woman emerges from Bluebeard’s seventh door in an uncannily familiar red dress. Her distracted state gives voice to thoughts that might almost be found within a reversal of Bluebeard’s central idea. Bluntness, angst, pain and fear of anything and everything pervade the air as the Woman stumbles distracted along the inner paths of her mind. The work’s major challenge for a director is how to represent that invisible void as to clarify and illustrate the intricately set text for audiences. Decker’s response is to have an actor make manifest ‘the Man’ of the Woman’s imagination. By having him remain mute and in black, barely visible against the set, it is indicated that she has no sense of another physical presence. It is a concept that only works partially, since much of the work’s power rests in what is implied as opposed to that which can be illustrated.

Whatever the staging, attention must focus on the Woman and Angela Denoke grasped the fearsomely difficult role with confidence. Her gutsy performance is a near ideal balance of precision and emotion, in so far as Schoenberg offers much room for manoeuvre. Curiously for a work that has sparked much debate over how it deals with the passing of time, Schoenberg’s score sounds increasingly dated and such open advocacy of expressionist ideals through absolute and direct musical language was something that Schornberg eventually regretted.

Perhaps it is apppropriat that Erwartung’s stifling musical claustrophobia ends abruptly, but it does not bring a natural conclusion to an evening at the opera. You might want to have the name of a good psychiatrist to hand as you leave: Dr. Freud would not have become the man he was without works like these.



Evan Dickerson



Jim Pritchard’s interview with Petra Lang in which she talks about singing Judit is here


Pictures © Royal Opera House / Bill Cooper 2006




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)