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Money, intimacy, thumbscrews: Fiona Halliday at the ENO

The forces of darkness and uncertainty marshaled at the ENO one last time before the sugar fest of Christmas starts to rain down a cinnamon plague of sicky froth, pantomimes and Handel’s Messiah-on-ice on our heads.

‘Duke Bluebeard,’ one of the nastiest operas ever penned, starts with a door in a wall. An average door on an average street on an average evening. There is a lamp, a My Fair Lady kind of lamp. That is all. There is no swoony overture from the massive orchestra lurking in the pit. There is only ominous silence… Oh, you know it’s going to be bad. You know it’s going to be soooo bad because they quoted Angela Carter in the programme. And I haven’t heard her name since I did one of those funny undergraduate courses about vampires, AIDS, queer studies and thumb screws.

Judith, our Bambi-eyed bosomy protagonist, follows her inscrutable lover Bluebeard through this door and through seven more doors, moving inexorably towards hell and unredeemable sexual slavery. Is Bartok merely taking a dim view of marriage? Is this dark unlit kingdom of torture chambers and unimaginable horror where the very walls bleed red tears merely metaphorical? (‘The door is the rectum’ my companion pointed out sagely.) Judith never tries to escape. Even as she approaches the final sick altar, she seems to believe her approach is a triumph of human love. She still seems to believe love can redeem the darkest corners of the sickest parts of the soul. And whilst she’s full up with radoxy, noble sentiment, Bluebeard’s all a-quiver with criminal lust as her trembling flesh becomes more and more ripe for torture and mutilation. You imagine his Soulmates profile would probably read ‘has money, intimacy issues and thumb screws.’ (I imagine for some reason they could only have met online). And finally Bluebeard’s three ugly harpies of wives are revealed behind the seventh door, like Macbeth’s cackling coven. They lie down and lift up their sack cloth dresses and open their legs for him to reveal bloodied bruised scabrous tortured thighs and Judith’s newly donned starry cloak of midnight is pulled back to reveal pristine limbs as he stands over her, trousers about ankles wielding a sword with which he’s about to er, penetrate her. Were those sackcloth harpies once beautiful like Judith? How long have they been thus imprisoned? Are those pauper children behind the fifth door misprung from his misfired seed? Can he actually misfire his seed? Is he impotent? Is this the Sound of Music gone bad, gone cancerously, festeringly, bury-in-a-lime-pit bad? Tame stuff compared to what you can see at the Odeon do I hear you say? But the immediacy of the live performance perhaps gave it an edge that celluloid lacks. There were moments in the cosy plushness of the auditorium when the air seemed to turn as cold and rancid as an undead armpit.

Bluebeard’s only an hour long and trying to find a suitable partner for its woes has always been problematic simply because it would strangle the life out of just about any operatic bedfellow. I had thought it would work well with a performance of the Marquis De Sade’s ‘Justine’ or indeed ‘Pension F’ – which is the dramatized story of the Josef Fritzl case. Yes, I’m sorry to mention Josef Fritzl twice in 2 reviews, but a Viennese theatre company did produce Pension F. (It’s not a musical, though it sounds like one.)

After we emerged from the twisted bleeding castle of Duke Bluebeard it was back into the light for the pagan porn of Stravinksy’s ‘Rites of Spring’ as imagined by the ever so fabulous Fabulous Beast Dance Company. Lots of men humping the stage, getting their kit off and putting on dog’s heads and floral print cotton dresses. What can I say? ‘Rites of Spring’ is it’s own worst enemy. You see there were riots and police at the premier and as much shenanigans as greeted the Sex Pistols’ early work (the words ‘early work’ are pronounced with an umlaut of acid). Here, after a disastrous 1940’s turn in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, in 2009, nearly one hundred years later, ‘Rites’ only managed to bring the house down. Stravinsky, who was a bit Sid Viscous at heart, would have been sorely disappointed by all the inane foot stamping and thunderous applause and the cheering. You can imagine him throwing up his hands in disgust. Yes, Rites Of Spring, the most loaded, venomous, tub-thumping piece of dissonant paganism – now showing… with all the controversy of Bambi.