Admit it: the first time you heard that Los Angeles Opera had decided to pair the Baroque charms of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the expressionistic horrors of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, you didn’t exactly say to yourself, “Oh yeah, that makes total sense.” No, at best, you probably thought, “Hmmmm — that’d be interesting.” If you were less open-minded, you winced.
After all, successfully putting together two or more short operas usually involves matching shows of similar music, orchestral size, and/or theatrical scope. The so-called “Cav/Pag” verismo mash-up of Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni and Pagliacci by Leoncavallo is the de riguer example at most opera houses. Long Beach Opera did an absurdist double a couple of years ago featuring obscure works by Poulenc and Martinů. Just a few months ago, Santa Fe Opera’s Mozart/Stravinsky duos had similar scale if somewhat dissimilar musical temperament. Dido and Bluebeard, however, have never been paired together before Director Barrie Kosky presented them at Frankfurt Opera in 2010.
After a few interim stops, Mr. Kosky brought the production here to Los Angeles, largely at the behest of LA Opera’s intrepid CEO, Christopher Koelsch. LA Opera needs this kind of edge to their programming to act as a foil to the romantic warhorses which form the bulk of any company’s season, and Mr. Kosky brings a fresh perspective without resorting to Eurotrash clichés. On the heels of last season’s Magic Flute — an absolute triumph spearheaded by Mr. Koelsch’s leadership and which marked Mr. Kosky’s LA Opera premiere — it seems that the Australian director is becoming the local company’s unofficial enfant-terrible-in-residence.
If so, then based on this past Sunday’s performance, that’s a very good thing. Unlike the doomed main characters of the two divergent operas (Dido and Aeneas in the first half, Judith and Bluebeard in the second), this particular Purcell/Bartok double-bill makes for a truly compelling operatic experience, thanks largely to the deft hand Mr. Kosky applies as the matchmaker.
The primary reason it works is because Mr. Kosky completely revels in the contrasts. In doing so, he allows the most basic similarity in the plots to become self-evident: a woman refuses love unless it is on her own terms, a stance which ultimately causes her undoing. The frustrating obstinance displayed by Dido in refusing Aeneas seems a little crazy at first. Yet when compared to Judith’s obsessive compulsive demands to unlock all the doors in Bluebeard’s Castle despite blood, blood, tears, and blood appearing pretty much everywhere, Dido comes across as a paragon of mental competency. Sure, some super-natural factors don’t make life easy for the ladies, but each has more than enough chances to avoid a stubbornly conscious uncoupling of their own making (Gwyneth Paltrow, eat your heart out).
That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Each opera is eye-catching in its own unique way. While Mr. Kosky and his team eschew literal interpretations of both the librettos, he espouses very different visual styles, each opera’s theatrical language mimicking the essence and symbology of its respective plot:
- Dido and Aeneas is linear and flat, mirroring its story and characters. The entire opera happens in front of a pleated screen set near the lip of the orchestra pit, with a white bench stretching the width of the stage serving as the only set piece. Most of the action occurs back and forth along the bench, with characters strolling behind it, sitting on top of it, or lying in front of it adding some verticality to the proceedings. Costumes are vaguely Elizabethan in appearance, with pastels dominating the color palette. A platform filled the orchestra pit, putting the small contingent of musicians almost level with the stage, and serving as an alternate place for cast and chorus to be.
- Bluebeard’s Castle occurs in a stark black box, with a large canted turntable in the center serving as the only decor. There are no castle walls, no seven doors to physically open — just the darkness, representing some combination of the lack of light in the castle, Bluebeard’s heart, and/or Judith’s absolute cluelessness about her fate. Bluebeard wears a generic dark business suit, while Judith wears a plain black dress: they are no one and they are everyone. Three men, dressed in the same type of suit as Bluebeard, appear during the production and in concert with Bluebeard himself. Collectively, they represent the contents behind each door in surrealistically effective fashion: endless streams of gold dust, vines, even flowing water, emanate like magic from the men’s sleeves. The spartan space heightens the impact of the special effects. You are intrigued as much as you are freaked out.
It’s tough to stop watching any of it. In fact, the visuals are so interesting that they often outshine the music. That’s not an indictment of the musicians’ skills as much as it is an acknowledgement that, generally speaking, these operas are not outright showpieces for voice or orchestra, especially in the context of this production. The performances by the very capable singers and instrumentalists are integral to the action, and the massive brass chorale at the opening of Bluebeard’s fifth door is as radiant as one would expect. But overall, the music and the musicians aren’t going to be what one remembers from this double bill. Blame Mr. Kosky, if you must, though Purcell and Bartok have a hand in it too.
It’s a shame because I really liked the performances. In Dido and Aeneas, mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy and baritone Liam Bonner were nicely paired in the title roles. Their contrasting vocal styles seemed appropriate for their respective character: Ms. Murrihy singing the forlorn and fragile princess with a direct and pure tone, while Mr. Bonner’s more robust, resonant approach fits perfectly as the outsider cum hero. Just as importantly, they were both effective actors within the confines of the old-school period dramedy. You believed they could have and should have been together, and you weren’t that surprised when they went their separate ways.
The other characterizations were satisfying as well. Kateryna Kasper was a charming Belinda, navigating her vocal gymnastics and physical gesticulations with aplomb. Brenton Ryan (Sailor/Spirit) and Sarah Hasson (Second Lady) were competent in their smaller parts. The small chorus, ably prepared by LA Opera Chorus Master and Resident Conductor Grant Gershon, sounded lovely and ably provided a shifting physical landscape on which the soloists could play off. Most shockingly, I liked the exploits of the cross-dressing counter-tenor trio of John Holiday (Sorceress), G. Thomas Allen (First Witch), and Darryl Taylor (Second Witch), even though I typically cannot abide the sound of counter-tenors; in this case, the timbre of their voices as well as their over-the-top portrayals proved not only tolerable but actually enjoyable. Granted, period music purists/snobs will largely scoff at the hodge-podge of styles, but that’s not me.
In the second half, Robert Hayward brought a surprising combination of ominousness and vulnerability to the role of Bluebeard. Claudia Mahnke gave Judith the right amount of psychological bi-polarity, both vocally and dramatically. That both of the singers could maintain their vocal lines in the midst of some very complex blocking requirements taking them all over the moving turntable was particularly notable.
Conductor Steven Sloane maintained musical order in both halves, leading a chamber-sized contingent of LA Opera strings mixed with period winds and continuo for the Purcell, while the full LA Opera Orchestra joined him during the Bartok. You had to strain to hear the woodwinds in Dido and Aeneas even with the players standing to play, but when you could hear them they sounded fine. There was no such trouble in Bluebeard’s Castle; additional brass playing from above the sides of the stage during the Fifth Door segment added some extra atmosphere.
I’d definitely see it again if I could. You should see it if you haven’t. There are three more performances of this Dido/Bluebeard double bill through Sunday, November 15, before Daniel Catán’s Florencia en al Amazones takes over the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage.
November 2, 2014: Los Angeles Opera; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Dido and Aeneas : Henry Purcell (libretto by Nahum Tate)
Bluebeard’s Castle: Bela Bartok (libretto by Bela Balazs)
Dido: Paula Murrihy*
Aeneas: Liam Bonner
Belinda: (in “Dido and Aeneas”) Kateryna Kasper*
Sorceress: (in “Dido and Aeneas”) John Holiday*
Second Lady: (in “Dido and Aeneas”) Summer Hassan+*
First Witch: (in “Dido and Aeneas”) G. Thomas Allen*
Second Witch: (in “Dido and Aeneas”) Darryl Taylor*
Sailor/Spirit: (in “Dido and Aeneas”) Brenton Ryan+
Bluebeard: Robert Hayward*
Judith: (in “Bluebeard’s Castle”) Claudia Mahnke*
Conductor: Steven Sloane
Director: Barrie Kosky
Associate Director: Ute M. Engelhardt*
Scenery and Costume Designer: Katrin Lea Tag*
Lighting Designer: Joachim Klein*
Chorus Director: (“Dido and Aeneas”) Grant Gershon
* LA Opera debut artist
+ Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program member
Production from Frankfurt Opera
Photo credits: Craig Mathew/LA Opera