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In Review > North America

Dido and Aeneas & Bluebeard’s Castle 

Los Angeles Opera

In Review Dido HDL 1115
Kosky’s staging of Bluebeard’s Castle at Los Angeles Opera
© Craig T. Mathew 2015

Los Angeles Opera imported Barrie Kosky’s pairing of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle from Frankfurt Opera (seen Oct. 25). The coupling of these works was odd; despite Kosky’s claim about their affinity in a desultory footnote, there are no strong thematic or plot links between them. The contrast between the music of the late-seventeenth and early-twentieth centuries was bracing, but the questionable fascination of the evening lay in the radically different impacts of the two productions.

Regietheater succeedsbest when it meets the imaginative challenges of the opera in question. This was supremely the case with Kosky’s Dido and Aeneas, by far the more successful half of the double bill. In its LAO premiere, Purcell’s opera was presented with maximum spectacle on a minimal stage. A large, sumptuously (if randomly) costumed chorus was crowded onto a long, narrow bench that stretched the length of the proscenium arch; when the stage was needed solely for the principals, the clamorous chorus joined the orchestra in the raised pit. Dido and her Trojan lover were inundated by the court, but when the court left they seemed sadly abandoned. The action unfolded in a performance that was part representation, part narrative and a considerable part grotesque japery. While on first encounter this seemed odd, it turned out to be apposite and perhaps quite close in spirit to the original performance in the late 1680s. Three hilariously sinister countertenor witches (John Holiday as the Sorceress and G. Thomas Allen and Darryl Taylor as the witches) provided the comedy that was customary for supernatural figures. Dido’s ladies-in-waiting — the wonderfully even-toned Kateryna Kasper as Belinda and Summer Hassan as the Second Lady — both mourned with their mistress and engaged in the antics of the court. In the midst of this grandiose tomfoolery sat Aeneas, whose tragic indecisiveness was movingly portrayed by American baritone Liam Bonner, and Dido, performed by the charismatic Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy. Hers was a Dido of supernal serenity, disrupted by volatile outbursts of emotion and desire, held together by a gloriously pellucid voice that riveted our ears to Purcell’s tragic melodies and rendered Dido’s death memorable. Steven Sloane conducted a part-period-instrument orchestra with agility and a capacity to bring out the full pathos of the score. When the entire chorus and orchestra walked out as Dido died, one was left with an impression of the loneliness of death that may well be indelible.

There was nothing wrong with Kosky’s conception of Bluebeard’s Castle; he evidently sees it as a quasi-Strindbergian drama in which Bluebeard’s anxieties and desires leave him open to the suffocating and calamitous blandishments of his new wife, Judith. Kosky’s desire to expunge the slightest hint of Romanticism from the design and staging — including all traces of the dungeon-like setting and the doors — was an intelligent response to Balázs and Bartók’s modernism. Unfortunately, this decision created a stage so stripped down — with lighting designed by Joachim Klein that was uniformly white — that all theatricality dissolved. The action had nowhere to go. Nothing onstage responded to Sloane’s conducting of the thrillingly gargantuan and deeply lyrical aspects of Bartók’s score. 

The principal roles were well-cast. Bass-baritone Robert Hayward had the vocal heft to embrace Bluebeard’s character and the Expressionist acting technique to embody it, and mezzo Claudia Mahnke was extraordinarily discerning and consistently passionate in her portrayal of Judith’s changing understanding of her husband’s character. But ultimately this Bluebeard misfired. The production did not fully meet the challenge of this great opera, a seminal work in twentieth-century music. Bluebeard’s dark suit and Judith’s cocktail dress were too prosaic for this memorable encounter, and the addition of three silent men to represent aspects of Bluebeard’s past did nothing to suggest the larger implications of the opera’s fearsome allegory. Reducing a masterpiece is among the commonest devices of Regie­theater, and this Bluebeard exemplified that. spacer 


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