Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring
There are very good reasons for ENO to pair Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Rite of Spring as a double bill. Both are dark, implacable masterpieces, capable of sucking the oxygen out of more lightweight works. Both are dramas of death and sacrifice, sharing a parallel ritual arc. Putting dance and opera on the same stage also reminds us that the two art forms started out as one. And Bluebeard’s director, Daniel Kramer, perhaps had that in mind when he opted to stage the opera almost as an extended pas de deux, at moments demanding as much physical as musical expression from his performers.
But singers are not dancers, and programming an opera beside a dance production cruelly underlines that point. Kramer’s take on his two protagonists, The Duke as a pervily arrested schoolboy and Judith as his sexually enthralled accomplice, requires much more eloquent body language than either Clive Bayley or Michaela Martens can command. The tension between them is nil. And its absence becomes all the more glaring given the electrifying physicality of Michael Keegan-Dolan’s new Rite.
Keegan-Dolan has taken the folklore and magic of Stravinsky’s vision and relocated them to his native Ireland. It’s an Ireland of bigotry, poverty, superstition and male pride (there are 19 men in its cast of 24); and one of the work’s triumphs is the precision with which this is embodied in the choreography. Keegan-Dolan’s mass ensembles may be earthed in Stravinsky’s clamorous Russian rhythms, but they are also vividly Irish: raw boned, aggressive, with a drunken lurch and a jig. The catalyst of the work is Cailleach, a hag, and under her witchy spell the men start to revert to an atavistic ritual world. They herd into a pack, wielding knives against the weakest and oldest, and their menace turns murderous as they put on dogs’ heads to hunt down the three young women on stage. With their rabid masks and their snuffling, predatory moves, these dog-men are terrifying. When the last woman, the Chosen One, is left to confront them, we expect her ending to be as horrible as Judith’s.
Here Keegan-Dolan deviates startlingly from Stravinsky. During the ensuing dance to death it is the Chosen One who takes command, and it is the men, having meekly put on women’s dresses, who drop to the floor. The most powerful force in the world is finally shown to be female. This is a bold flipping of tradition, but the pay-off is worth it.
Judith Mackrell, The Guardian ★★★★
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