What connects a 17th-century English Baroque opera, Dido & Aeneas, to an early 20th-century Hungarian opera based on a fairy tale, Bluebeard’s Castle? You could argue that both, currently on stage at LA Opera, are based on myths, or that both involve untrustworthy men, but I’d say the most obvious thread is the unmistakably creative imprint that Director Barrie Kosky has stamped upon these strange, yet remarkable stagings.
Kosky, as opera buffs may recall, is the Berlin-based Australian director behind the triumphant Magic Flute that was the highlight of LA Opera’s 2013-14 season. This time, he has abandoned the collaboration with British animators for a more visually stark and purely conceptual rendering. What we are seeing is performance art with lovely music underpinning it, but done in such a way that we rarely feel flummoxed by the incomprehensibility of it all.
Dido & Aeneas, sung in verse in English, is one of those works that could easily have been lost to the mists of time. It was performed publicly only once (1688) in composer Henry Purcell’s lifetime, and, after a few additional performances around 1700, was not performed again until 1895, the centenary of Purcell’s death. In the years since, it has slowly gained popularity, in no small part because of the stunning beauty of Dido’s final aria — popularly called “Dido’s Lament” — which has been covered by artists as varied as Klaus Nomi and Jeff Buckley.
The opera opens with Dido and the entire chorus seated on a long bench stretching the entire width of the proscenium at the front of the stage. Just behind the bench is a screen, compressing the action to a total depth of only about 8 feet. Occasionally, the front wall of the stage is broken as the chorus moves down into the orchestra pit and sings surrounding the small Baroque orchestra (playing on original instruments). The movements of the chorus are mostly synchronized and often herky-jerky, so you know from the start that this is not meant to be a realistic portrayal. Nevertheless, Kosky uses the chorus very effectively throughout, making it as much a “character” as the leads.
Events are also very compressed, leaving little foundation for effective drama, so the focus is more on the music and the singers. Liam Bonner sings Aeneas with good vocal projection, but with too heavy a vibrato, I thought. Paula Murrihy sings Dido and is effective in communicating the pathos of a woman fated to die for love (this is a tragedy, after all). Her death scene, the opera’s climactic ending, was especially powerful, with great emotional resonance. Her plaintive aria complete, Dido sits alone on the long bench as the orchestra plays a mournful dirge along with the chorus. Dido gasps and chokes and whimpers as the chorus members gradually fade into the wings, leaving only the orchestra performing. Then the orchestra members depart the pit one by one, the music thinning and finally ceasing, leaving only the final gasps of Dido as we fade to black.
Bluebeard’s Castle, written in 1911, is Hungarian composer Bela Bartôk’s only opera. Based on the 17th-century fairy tale La Barbe Bleu by Charles Perrault (the author behind such popular fare as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood), Bluebeard’s Castle emphasizes the dark elements that appear in all of Perrault’s stories. The tale centers on Judith who has left her family to marry Bluebeard, a nobleman whose several previous wives have mysteriously disappeared. After her arrival at said castle, Judith finds a series of locked doors, which she insists on opening. Her husband reluctantly relents, but has warned her never to open the door to one particular room, and she agrees. Ultimately, however, her curiosity gets the best of her, with disastrous results.
The curtain rises to reveal a huge, blank canted disc, surrounded by black curtains. Bluebeard (Robert Hayward) and Judith (Claudia Mahnke), both dressed in black formal wear, embrace as the huge 80-piece orchestra kicks in. While there are other people that emerge onto the (slowly spinning) disc, there are no other singers, nor any chorus. The others that step onto the disc symbolize each of the seven rooms that Judith unlocks. These rooms include Bluebeard’s torture chamber, his arsenal, his treasury, etc. — all of which bear traces of blood that her husband seems loath to explain.
The tone is serious and somber, and the music has a stately, somewhat funereal air. I confess to not knowing much about Bartôk’s music, but I was impressed by the scope and power of the music, as conducted by Steven Sloane. During the climaxes, when the brass really comes in at full throat, it’s enough to loosen the wax in your ears. The singing is more than competent; the scope of the acting, however, is quite a bit more limited: Judith seems perpetually perturbed and obsessed, while Bluebeard comes off as aloof and patronizing.
The empty “castle” is sad, austere and without life, kind of like a minimalist House of Usher (and without the campy Vincent Price for levity). Despite this visual barrenness, there are a few spots that attract one’s attention. When Judith discovers the secret garden, she pulls long leafy vines from the sleeves of Bluebeard that snake across the space. When she unlocks the treasury, a man emerges with golden glitter falling from his sleeves and jacket hem, handfuls of which Judith gleefully tosses about. And when she finally unlocks the seventh door, three men and three women materialize to perform a macabre dance in unison.
Like the tale on which it is based, Bluebeard’s Castle is rife with symbolism, and while enjoying the music, it can be fun to try to connect the conceptual dots. Are the seven rooms a nod to the seven seals of the apocalypse in Revelations — signaling the end times? Is Judith’s consignment to the dark midnight a hint that she somehow represents the dark forces imbuing Pandora’s Box? We’ll never know for sure, but this pair of one-act operas offers a nourishing heap of food for thought and sumptuous desserts for the ears.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA
Dido & Aeneas and Bluebeard’s Castle continue through Nov. 15 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. For tickets or more information, call (213) 972-8001 or visit http://www.laopera.org/season/1415-Season-at-a-Glance/Dido-and-Aeneas-Bluebeards-Castle/.