A Schoenberg: Erwartung, Royal Opera House, 26 May, 2006.
The double bill of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung presents an interesting pair of, again, almost contemporaneous operas. The former was written in 1911, the latter in 1909 but they were not performed until 1918 and 1924 respectively. This production, first seen in 2002, directed by Willy Decker, is revived here by Martin Gregor Lütje, designed by John Macfarlane and superbly conducted by Kirill Patrenko. Both operas deal with the misfortunes of post-Wagnerian, post-redemptional heroines, though Judit, as Bluebeard’s new wife, is not without redemptive aspirations. Having left her parents and her betrothed, she arrives at Bluebeard’s bachelor establishment and immediately starts to moan about the damp and the gloomy atmosphere. Through a mixture of nagging and cajolery, she gains the keys to seven doors, each of which illuminates a blood-stained aspect of Bluebeard’s existence, culminating in the revelation of his three previous wives, whose company Judit is drawn into. In this version of the fairy-tale it is Bluebeard who gains our sympathy. Judit, by neglecting his warnings, gets what she deserves, while Bluebeard is left at the end in need of both a new companion and a new hobby – his collection of wives representing times of the day, dawn, noon, dusk and night now being complete.
This is very dark staging in which the illumination, from each door in turn, is white changing to red. This is a different visual concept from each room producing a new colour adding to increasing total illumination, as is specified in the original stage directions. (The 1970’s Sadler’s Wells production which handled this perfectly remains vivid in the mind.) Musically the performance is stunning. Petra Lang and Albert Dohmen are totally engrossing and subtly represent the changing relationship between the characters, he with love turning to exasperation, she, her desire to know him turning to obsession.
The impact of Erwartung was diminished by a spurious and distracting attempt to link the two operas by using the same set and the same costumes for the Woman and her lover as for Judit and the Duke. Musically the operas are incompatible. Bluebeard is a neo-romantic telling of a fairy story, Erwartung is an atonally disorienting expressionist nightmare. It has the form of a monologue by a woman compulsively searching in the dark for a lover whom she suspects of infidelity. The ending is ambiguous when she encounters an object on the ground that could or could not be the dead body of the lover. In this production, the Woman, intensely portrayed by Angela Denoke, is closely shadowed by a bulky apparition, whom at the end she appears to run through with a sword. My own interpretation (which may not be original and which I only quote because it illustrates the disturbing questions thrown up by the work) is that she has previously murdered her lover and is now searching for him in an amnesiac state. One could envisage the score as providing an accompaniment to an expressionist, nineteen twenties’, silent movie representation.
The auditorium was gratifyingly full with a youthful audience, perhaps helped by a last minute offer of £50 seats in the stalls. These productions can (and should) be seen in Cardiff or Birmingham under WNO’s banner next summer. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, there are still seats available for the return of Le Nozze di Figaro (Oxford Magazine No.248) at the end of June. Fight for them! Other ‘outreach’ activities at the ROH include £10 ‘Travelex’ Monday seats for Tosca and Turandot, including a pre-performance Turandot singalong on 10 July and, on 23 July, the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Summer Concert with an eclectic programme of operatic excerpts.
The year ends on a sad note with the news that Glyndebourne On Tour will no longer visit Oxford and, from 2007, Welsh National Opera will only come once a year. Our self-styled Cultural City pays the price for failing to provide a suitably accessible modern venue for large-scale musical works. Oxford’s loss is Milton Keynes’ gain.
31 May 2006
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