The 8th Door & Bluebeard’s Castle,
Theatre Royal, Glasgow,
At Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,
Reviewed by Mark Brown
This double bill of Bela Bartok’s famous opera Bluebeard’s Castle and, preceding it, the world premiere of the Bartok-inspired piece The 8th Door (which is conceived by composer Lliam Paterson and theatre director Matthew Lenton) was a tantalising prospect. A co-production between Scottish Opera and Glasgow-based theatre company Vanishing Point, under Lenton’s directorship, it promised to be, in every department, a celebration of the aesthetics of European Modernism.
Taking its title after Bluebeard’s Castle (in which, famously, the truth of the titular baron’s life are concealed behind seven doors), The 8th Door has a libretto built of poetry. The text is inspired, mainly, by Hungarian poets (such as Attila Jozsef and Sandor Weores), but also draws upon the work of Scotland’s late Makar, Edwin Morgan.
Growing from Bartok’s themes of secrecy and revelation between lovers, the piece charts, in visual terms at least, a young couple’s journey into the euphoria and pain of romantic love. Two actors (Gresa Pallaska and Robert Jack) are seated, with their backs to the audience, before video cameras from which their faces are projected alternately onto a large screen at the centre of the stage; the singers (who perform in Hungarian and English with English supertitles) are consigned to the orchestra pit.
There is a strong match between Paterson’s music (which is, by sudden turns, harmonic and discordant) and a libretto which overflows with affecting and disquieting metaphors. This ambiguous, poetic depth is undermined fatally, however, by Lenton’s staging.
Following an intriguing beginning, in which out-of-focus faces emerge slowly from the darkness, as if in a painting by Francis Bacon, the live video (which is realised by designer Kai Fischer, but, presumably, conceived by Lenton) soon descends into banality. From the giving of a flower to an absurd kiss, the unremarkable visual storytelling is, like a glaring light shone onto a beautiful twilight, at constant odds with the poetics of the opera.
Matters improve somewhat in Lenton’s presentation of Bluebeard’s Castle. Based upon the macabre French fairytale (which was popularised by Charles Perrault in the late-17th century), it tells the story of the secretive Baron Bluebeard and Judith, his fourth wife.
Bluebeard (who is rumoured to have murdered his previous wives) begs Judith to love him without question. Judith, however, insists that she will love Bluebeard regardless of his secrets, and requires the keys to the seven doors.
The metaphorical implications of the tale are timeless, which makes the decision by Lenton and Fischer to opt for a 21st-century design entirely legitimate. However, one might question the wisdom of transforming Bluebeard’s bleak castle into a modern, and surprisingly modest, living room, complete with sofa.
There is an irritating gulf between this prosaic setting and Bartok’s jagged, majestic music. Fischer attempts to dramatise his design with variably effective elemental projections (the lake of tears is impressive, blood red light shining from a laptop computer is simply silly). One can’t help but wish, however, that he and Lenton had opted for something more abstract from the outset.
Despite such disappointments, there are memorable performances from bass-baritone Robert Hayward (Bluebeard) and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill (Judith). Their irreconcilable argument over the meaning of love is conducted at a transfixing emotional level.
There is an irony in Lenton and Vanishing Point coming up short on the visual front. Often, in recent times, their theatre work has been stronger in form than in content. Yet here, with a great Modernist masterpiece in their hands, it is their visual imagination that lets them down.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 2, 2017
© Mark Brown