Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle/The Miraculous Mandarin

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday June 24 2018

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Production and Costumes: Christophe Coppens. Sets: Christophe Coppens and I.S.M.Architecten. Lighting: Peter Van Praet. Video: Jean-Baptiste Pacucci, Simon Van Rompay. Prologue: Gabor Vass. A Kékszakállú Herceg: Ante Jerkunica. Judit: Nora Gubisch. La Monnaie Orchestra and Chorus.

A good-looking but somehow not, ultimately, very exciting Bartok double-bill in Brussels last Sunday. To me it came across more as a carefully-crafted "designer" production than a fully theatrical one.

The last time I was at La Monnaie was at the end of April, so not so long ago, for Lohengrin. "Act three involved a kind of Celebrity Squares or noughts-and-crosses set-up: three floors of three square spaces, making nine boxes in all, with steel stairs between." I did wonder, this Sunday, if they'd recycled the same structure for the Bartok, to save money. It would have made sense - especially as La Monnaie must have lost a lot during its big-top fiasco at Tour et Taxis. In this case, the nine boxes were lined with prismatic mirrors, during Bluebeard glinting darkly in the gloom of dim lighting. Bluebeard himself was in the central box, at first muffled up in an enveloping, hive-shaped cloak with only his head poking out. When he cast it off, we found he was brass-buttoned up in black, in a wheelchair.

Only Judith could move around from room to room. She and her new husband never actually met, so the emotional temperature remained low; and overall the lighting was too low for the singers easily to project any personality through their acting. Gleaming spikes, like icicles, slide down menacingly from the ceiling in the first box; neatly lined-up displays of assorted guns appeared in the second; Christmas-tree lights represented the treasure, and Judith stepped into a twinkling, dress-shaped, mirror-prism carapace, as if trying it on. Later, we would discover the other wives in the same rigid, metallic dresses, and Judith would don hers, presumably for good. Videos projected at the rear were fairly obscure until, at the famous door 5, a blue sky with white clouds scudding across lit up the whole set. In each box, at the mention of blood, the lighting turned from icy white to red. Towards the end, Bluebeard rose from his wheelchair and paced around quite normally: not sure what that was about.

This all made for a series of handsome images, but I wished the director had done more in his designer sets - and so did my neighbour, a talented young artist, who felt that a lot more could have been made of the considerable means available and found the "blue sky" video simply banal.

Bartok
For the ballet, Coppens went for total contrast within the same 9-box space: da-glo-coloured videos (more sophisticated than in the opera) and lighting and brilliant, "wearable sculpture" costumes, including pull-on fat suits, in a pantomime atmosphere. I particularly liked the strings of life-sized, naked-pink rag dolls pulled out of a yellow orifice upstairs and channeled down to the ground like links of sausages pouring off a production line, and a shiny shark bolero for the pimp - otherwise only in red swimming trunks and an abundance of tattoos (whether they were the dancer's own, or drawn on for the production, I don't know) - matching a life-sized, patent black-and-white shark*. There was a great deal of leaping about and running up and down the stairs and the young and slim yet muscular (maybe "wiry" is the word) "Mandarin" slithered and slid admirably, but in the end, as we glimpsed Bluebeard rolling in at the back in his wheelchair, possibly seeking new wives or perhaps fed up with marriage, I didn't feel wholly convinced.

Ante Jerkunica has a big, resounding, bassy voice, a picture of vocal health. The contrast with Nora Gubisch was unflattering to her, as her voice is smaller and she seemed well out of her comfort zone in this part: stretched, possibly overstretched. Also out of its comfort zone, so it sounded to me, was the orchestra of La Monnaie. I've often said they're at their best in middle Verdi, which of course Bluebeard is decidedly not. I was surprised Alain Altinoglu didn't instil more zip into their playing, which at times seemed cautious and, occasionally, even unsure. In the opera, slow bits were best: the lake of tears gave me a thrill. But little else did. So it was quite surprising to hear them sounding quite comfortable, afterwards, in the whirlwinds of the ballet.

*Someone better-acquainted with sea-life than I am tells me it was a killer whale.

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