Minimalist staging gives LA Opera’s double bill maximum impact

by Natalie Mann

Claudia Mahnke as Judith and Robert Hayward as Bluebeard. Photo by Craig Mathew/ LA Opera.
Claudia Mahnke as Judith and Robert Hayward as Bluebeard. Photo by Craig Mathew/ LA Opera.

Society has long been hooked by the adage, “out with the old and in with the new.”  LA Opera’s newest double bill of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle shows the error of that thought. Australian director Barrie Kosky’s vision teases out the parallels in these two dramas, separated compositionally by hundreds of years. The shows bring to life stunning twists in both the fantasy of storytelling and the reality of human nature.

Dido and Aeneas. Photo by Craig Mathew/ LA Opera.
Dido and Aeneas chorus. Photo by Craig Mathew/ LA Opera.

The opening of Dido and Aeneas speaks of unsettling moments to come, as the curtain rises slowly and to a confused silence as the cast remain seated, motionless, on a long bench. The orchestra’s sensitively played score and opening notes from the beautifully balanced chorus put the listener at ease. But is clear that the director doesn’t intend for the patrons to sit back and disengage, as the show continues with quirky and amusing staging. Through the use of the front lip of the stage, as well as sending the chorus into the pit, listeners can feel they’ve taken some part in the show. The production is certainly not without its titillating moments, as well.

Paula Murrihy’s portrayal of Dido is magical. Her youthful look, impeccable diction and glorious sound are the triple threat that steals the show.  LAO baritone favorite Liam Bonner (last year’s Billy Budd) returns as Aeneas, and the two make an electric couple.

Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner as the title roles of Dido and Aeneas.
Paula Murrihy and Liam Bonner in the title roles of Dido and Aeneas. Photo by Craig Mathew/ LA Opera.

Countertenor John Holiday is also a particular hit in his LA Opera debut as the Sorceress, with vocal clarity and campy showmanship that bring his character to life.

While there are times that the plotline may be hard to decipher in the wild gyrations and movements of the characters on stage, the music is seamless and beautiful. The show’s apex is summed up in a line sung by the chorus: “Great minds against themselves conspire.” The show ends as it began: in silence, except for the sobbing of Dido in her loss, abandoned by Aeneas and then even the orchestra leaves the pit, one by one, leaving her to her death.

One might think that Bluebeard’s Castle, sung in Hungarian, would be a tough sell after accessible Purcell. Certainly it could be, but not in the capable hands of leads Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith. Their portrayals leave nothing to be desired from the listener, as they fully command the difficult score, with Bartók’s sleek and alluring music brought out in eerie moments and supple vocal lines.

A scene from Bluebeard. Photo by Craig Mathew/ LA Opera.
A scene from Bluebeard’s Castle. Photo by Craig Mathew/ LA Opera.

The barren, raked stage platform rotates, drawing Judith further and further into Bluebeard’s madness. As her own craven desire causes her to demand one key after another, insisting she be allowed into every room of Bluebeard’s twisted world, the psychological drama between the two is played out in stark black and white, with simple garb and silent players (three men, three women).  Feats of special effects are brought in by these supernumeraries, interacting in their magical costumes with the principals and giving the illusion of the live-action fairy tale in most beautiful and gruesome terms.  Men in suits grow vines, shower gold, and drip tears all over the stage, illustrating what is found behind various doors of the isolated castle.  It was impossible to look away during the show, allowing me to understand on some level the fascination that Judith must have felt as she was unable to ignore the signs that lead to her ultimate demise.

The Dido/Bluebeard double bill plays at LA Opera through November 15.

More details and tickets available on LA Opera’s website.

Check out the chatter and our post-dress tweetstorms with #LAODidoBluebeard on Twitter

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