DREADFUL things happen to women in opera – they might be immured in a mausoleum, run though by a jealous lover or left to die in a sack, but nowhere is their fate sealed more grimly than in Béla Bartók’s only opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle”.
Not any more, as a new production of four performances only by Opera Australia is about to show.
“There’s no other way to see ‘Bluebeard’ but as a misogynistic work,” says associate director Priscilla Jackman, who joins director Andy Morton in staging the show for OA.
“But looked at in the light of day during 2021, it feels very timely.”
That’s because of figures like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, knowledge of whose actions has forever changed the way old tales are viewed.
You probably know the story by Charles Perrault, who also wrote “Mother Goose”, the first version of “Cinderella” and “Puss in Boots”. In that, the young wife at the centre of the tale is saved.
But in Bartók’s 1911 one-hour psychological thriller, with a libretto written by Béla Balázs, there’s no happy ending.
There are only two singing characters onstage, Bluebeard (Daniel Sumegi) and his new wife Judith (Carmen Topciu), who has escaped from respectability to elope with him. Together they come home to Bluebeard’s castle.
There she finds the walls are wet with tears and stained with blood which can’t be washed off, something she also finds behind the seven doors which are locked before her, where his wives, who are not exactly dead, are found. In the original, Judith joins them.
Jackman, well known as the go-to director when it comes to women’s issues in the theatre, has been brought in by OA director Andy Morton because of the challenging content in “Bluebeard’s Castle”.
She’s no novice. Director of OA’s 2020 NSW schools tour of “The Barber of Seville”, she also wrote and directed “Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story” and directed “Da Vinci’s Apprentice” for Musica Viva, created by Canberrans Sally Greenaway, Catherine Prosser and Paul Bissett.
“We have to look past the content, given the underlying fact that Judith’s is the romance that doesn’t fit… it reminds us of the many ghastly cases where women is the enabler – ”Show me all your hidden secrets”, she says.
Judith, she explains, is the virginal bride in the traditional story but in this libretto, it is clear that she has run away from her fiancé, her mother and her father.
“She is a woman who has chosen an alternative,” Jackman says.
“She has walked away from tradition and there’s a deeper sexual attraction – she hasn’t been kidnapped by Bluebeard. Instead, there is a peculiar sexual chemistry that’s teetering on the edge of violence.”
The libretto is sung by Bluebeard while a lot of the action is performed by Judith, allowing Morton and Jackman to make a subtle change to what the ending means, so that she’s not immured in the castle.
“The way I see it, Judith is a lightning rod for change. I think they brought me in to help interrogate the debate… I’ve not been an associate director before, although I was assistant director on ‘Ernani’,” Jackman says.
“Andy is making sure that we share the role and I’m finding the experience truly collaborative – he’s been extraordinarily generous.”
“He is a middle-class, white man and he is fully aware with his own biases, so he wanted to get a colleague to work on alternative views.”
She hopes the outcome will be an innovative force for the audience.
Jackman describes the music, arranged and conducted by Andrea Molino, as “unforgiving, aggressive and hinting at something horrendous”, but that means there is also “something very psychologically special about stripping back the layers”.
Money is an issue, so in this production an important factor has been the visual concept.
“It’s very dependent on lighting design… we don’t have a huge budget like ‘Tosca’ or ‘Ernani’, so there’s got to be a lot of innovation.”
The costume department has been in overdrive to create a modern, minimalist look and lighting designer John Rayment has created a symbolic setting that invokes a razor-like focus on the key figures, allowing Morton and Jackman to focus on the drama.
“We revel in the sinister, horrifying music but instead of getting over-used to violence, we use it as a tool to change the narrative, the woman’s journey is shown in a new light.”
And the frightening Bluebeard?
“He’s a man of his time, but the audience will be able to interrogate the story especially when you see the story visually. When it’s in concert form you only concentrate on the libretto – this will be different,” Jackman says.
“Bluebeard’s Castle”, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, March 1, 5, 8, 10, bookings here.