There is something admirable about Scottish Opera’s decision to co-produce and stage (with Glasgow’s Vanishing Point) a new work (The 8th Door) alongside Bartok’s more firmly-established opera (Bluebeard’s Castle). The idea feels ambitious, and lends an air of uniqueness to their two-in-one production.
The 8th Door consists of an empty stage, save for two actors – a man and woman played by Robert Jack and Elicia Daly, respectively. With backs to the audience, they face two cameras on tripods which project their movements on a large screen. It is clear that the story revolves around a love affair between these two characters and a standard concept, if disconcerting—and at times, quite disturbing—through the sinister, often atonal, underlying score.
Fragments of Hungarian poetry which are used, collage-like, in lieu of an original libretto, become jarring non sequiturs when placed side-by-side to form the narrative. However, while captivating and highly evocative, these fragments tend to approach the material in a thoroughly self-contained—one might say, postmodern—way; that is, it makes little attempt at communicating with an audience that serves as just another prop within the performance.
The expressions of the actors are exaggerated and melodramatic. For a piece which relies solely on facial movement, the directorial decision to do so seems odd and rouses a suspicion that irony may be at play here. The singers, placed off-stage with the orchestra, all perform excellently. Mezzo-soprano Katie Grosset and sopranos Emily Vine and Hazel McBain haunt the theatre like a discordant chorus of Furies. The male voices serve as atmospheric, droning accompaniments. This is all in keeping with the demands of the dissonant music.
Composer Lliam Paterson and director Matthew Lenton seem to work well together and to create their desired effect. It feels, however, that – like many pieces of performance art – the intention here is to provoke for the sake of provoking; one may wonder what the meaning is, or may suspect that there isn’t one at all. Viewing The 8th Door may best be described as akin to staring into the void. It is existential and affecting, yes; but the question that lingers by the end is “is this enough?”.
On the other hand, Bluebeard’s Castle feels a bit like consuming an after-dinner mint, following the gluttonous cacophony of the preceding existentialism. After a fairy-tale-like prologue, we are introduced to the titular Bluebeard—played with force by Robert Hayward—and his wife, Judith (Karen Cargill). Matthew Lenton again directs, maintaining some stylistic consistency between the two works. There are references that hearken back to moments in The 8th Door; blood, in particular, is a linking theme.
Kai Fischer’s set design is, one of this production’s strengths. The use of contemporary objects—including a laptop and costumes consisting of a night-gown—maintains the slightly out of place atmosphere that characterises the earlier work. And yet, when Bluebeard and Judith sing of the “castle” while standing in the interior of a suburban home, it feels strangely ordinary.
Bluebeard’s Castle can be slow-moving. The coupling of mundane surroundings with repetitive and unremarkable onstage actions often offers little to stimulate the heart or head. The most powerful scene of the opera comes at it’s very end. Bluebeard’s dead wives, with stony movements and pained expressions, interact with Judith in an entrancing sequence and their exits, one-by-one, highlight the opera’s underlying layers concerning women hurt by a man. Yet, this drama comes too late to propel the momentum of the performance as a whole. Bluebeard’s Castle is, however, solidly staged by the Scottish Opera, and Sian Edwards’ conducting brings out both the subtleties of Bartok’s impressionistic touches and the aggression of his less melodious flourishes.
Overall, these two productions are performed with worthy staging, but Bluebeard’s Castle could have used some of the tension of The 8th Door.
Image courtesy of Festival Theatre