The Rite of Spring

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle / The Rite of Spring
Neil Norman
Friday November 13, 2009

WARNING: the following review may be unsuitable for readers of a nervous disposition. English National Opera / Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre

London Coliseum 0870 145 0200 until November 26

Bela Bartók’s mini-opera is a profoundly unsettling work that drags you to hell and keeps you there. Daniel Kramer’s production re-conceptualises the tale of the monstrous wife-killer Bluebeard with clear allusions to latter-day fiends like Josef Fritzl.

The castle becomes a decaying, abandoned industrial warehouse through which Clive Bayley’s Bluebeard leads his latest victim, the naïve Judith (Michaela Martens) who insists on opening a succession of locked doors, revealing the increasingly ghastly secrets behind each one.

Bayley’s sonorous bass seems to emanate from somewhere south of his boots and the clarity of his diction and swooning romantic entreaties (“Love me, Judith”) give his Bluebeard an extraordinarily seductive intensity. But there’s more. Once inside the castle he turns into a demented child, jumping up and down with glee at the prospect of another victim.

This performance is reinforced by his collections of weapons and torture implements, many of which are depicted as sinister toys.

Everything that Judith touches leaves her covered in blood and it is not long before her sun-yellow dress is stained scarlet. Her attempts at bringing light to the darkness become ever more pitiful and Martens responds by adjusting her tone from hope to desperation, pivoting around an anguished howl of despair as the music accelerates to a brain-searing crescendo.

Bartók’s extraordinary score, which sweeps and soars and scuttles, playing tricks with timing and dissonance, is a marvel of atmospheric engineering and includes a spine-chilling central mantra. The coup de théâtre is when Judith unlocks the door of Bluebeard’s ‘garden’ to reveal several maggot-pale children who line up in ascending order of height like the family von Trapped.

“Are you frightened?” asks Bluebeard with increasing urgency. Terrified, actually.

Bartók’s psycho-drama and Stravinsky’s ritualistic ballet are strange bedfellows though Fabulous Beast’s interpretation of The Rite of Spring is rewarding in itself. Musically, as ENO conductor Edward Gardner notes, it is similarly adventurous, though Stravinsky’s aims are entirely different.

Here he erases the gap between tempo and dance step, rooting the music to the earth in a manner that is both primitive and highly sophisticated. Dressed as Irish peasants the male ensemble stomp and jump, twist and turn in breathtaking unison as if jolted by underground electrical currents. Olwen Fouéré’s shamanistic Hag sets the tone by blowing cigarette smoke over the company members like a ritual conjuration.

The deployment of animal heads — hares for the three women and hounds for the men — emphasise the predatory aspect of the natural world; while the gender transition as the men remove their clothes and put on dresses before The Chosen One (Daphne Strothman) dances in a death frenzy suggests female empowerment that invokes the earth goddess Gaia. It reaches deep into Stravinsky’s music and ferrets around in the entrails to pull out raw, bleeding chunks of movement.

An evening of pure theatrical voodoo. Get strong and go.

Neil Norman, Daily Express

Original article