Festival Opera

Bluebeard’s Castle

Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

Five stars

OPERA director Daisy Evans had a high productive pandemic. When her planned 2020 Fringe show for Scottish Opera was a casualty of lockdown she was made a superb filmed version of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone for the International Festival’s emergency programme instead – and then followed up with a clever socially-distanced Hansel and Gretel at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal.

Over the same period, the seeds of this project with conductor and arranger Stephen Higgins for Theatre of Sound were also germinating.

Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle is usually an intense two-hander for soprano and bass, laden with symbolism as Judith comes to terms with her new husband’s past life and loves in his imposing home, soundtracked by an immense orchestra.

Evans and Higgins reimagine the piece on a smaller, contemporary domestic scale with a scaled-down score – superbly played by the Hebrides Ensemble here. The initial set-up is brilliantly conveyed in a silent opening scene as an elderly Bluebeard (Lester Lynch) fussily leaves his home, and then with the arrival (from hospital perhaps?) of Judith (Susan Bullock), the wariness in her eyes conveying the confusion of dementia.

A steamer trunk replaces the seven doors of the original, the treasure chest’s contents being the memories that Bluebeard at first encourages Judith to retrieve, only to try to suppress others as the drama unfolds. With five silent actors personifying the revelations of the couple’s shared past, this is a Bluebeard for today that serves Bartok’s music as faithfully as it makes the work live in Evan’s own vibrant new libretto.

Bullock, who was terrific in Scottish Opera’s EIF production of Turnage’s Greek and last year’s Candide in Glasgow, is on magnificent form, and Lynch, who sang in Scottish Opera’s Verdi Collection concerts, matches her fine vocal and acting performance. After the dramatic scenes of the hour have unfolded, his simple act of making her a cup of tea as the piece ends is full of pathos.

With superb stage and lighting design – some 34 table, standard and reading lamps on stage are as malleable in their literal illumination as those manipulated memories – this is a production that proves once again that the alleged absence of opera in this year’s Festival programme was much exaggerated.

Runs to Sunday August 27