Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Reviewer's Rating

When you hear some of the more exotic instruments of the orchestra tuning up and practising motifs in the pit, then you know you are in for a full-fat showpiece, and so it proved on the first night of ENO’s new production of Bartok’s early expressionist opera. There are only two singers and a narrator, so the orchestra is an equal character in the drama, and more especially as the main sequence of the drama is the opening of seven doors in the castle each of which offer a troubled and troubling insight into Bluebeard’s past, and where the composer leaves much of the descriptive task, whether magnificent or gruesome, or both, to the orchestra itself. Despite all the recent troubles at ENO, the orchestra’s tableaus were spectacular in their resplendent chordal majesty or forensically detailed in the instrumental solos, all guided by the baton of Lidiya Yankovskaya, who set a brisk set of tempi.

This was a semi-staged production where designer Rosanna Vize focuses the action around a long table set parallel to the audience, and surrounded by chairs, some of which are then moved to simulate the opening of the doors in Bluebeard’s Castle.  As each ‘door’ opens, so props are advanced to realise the character of the view – a wine glass that overflows with blood, bunches of flatware to stand for the armoury, bouquets of flowers for the garden, scattered glitter for the treasury, and lighting to evoke the lake of tears. All are tainted with bloodstains. Only the scale of the vast vista of Bluebeard’s kingdom opened up by the fifth door eludes imaginative evocation.

That perhaps in itself illustrates what is the limitation of this production’s approach which falls between a full realistic production and a concert performance that would allow it simply to resonate as a symbolic mental projection. As the reciter of the prologue says, it can be read as one or the other, but there is a risk here of falling between two stools. Nor was I entirely convinced that we needed the reciter to point out what is now the standard reading of the opera, though Leo Bill was clearly indispensable to physical delivery of many of the later physical aspects of the production.

There are, however, no doubts about the quality of singing. Canadian bass John Relyea has the measure of the role of Bluebeard, starting in swaggering confidence and gradually crumpling under the relentless exposure of his bloody past (whether seen literally or as a psychological unravelling). Allison Cook was scheduled to sing the role of Judith, but had to cancel through illness. With only two hours of rehearsal Jennifer Johnston stepped in to sing the role from a statis position on stage, while the assistant director, Crispin Lord, walked the role, dressed in Judith’s white satin bridal gown.

Musically, this was a heroic achievement: Johnston not only was fully on top of the considerable technical demands of the part, but her vocal urgency and inflections mirrored the trajectory of the drama, becoming more strident, insistent and dominant as we moved towards the dramatic climax of the seventh door. However, dramatically, the result was more questionable. All credit to Lord for enacting the role at such short notice without which the production could hardly have gone ahead; but the memorable intimate interactions required between Bluebeard and Judith inevitably had a very different resonance when two men are involved from the intentions of the composer, whether we go with realism or symbolism. The collective appearance of Bluebeard’s former wives at the very end, provided an effective theatrical means of closing out the peroration of the opera.

While this was not the evening that anyone quite intended, the performance was still memorable and the musical values operated to a very high standard. As a departure from normal practice at ENO, the opera was sung in Hungarian with English subtitles, displayed on a much larger than usual surtitle banner.


Composer: Bela Bartok

Libretto: Bela Balacs

English National Opera: Coliseum

Director: Joe Hill-Gibbins

Conductor: Lidiya Yankovskaya

Cast includes: Leo Bill, Jennifer Johnston, Crispin Lord, John Relyea

Running Time: 1 hr, no interval

Until 23 March 2024