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August 27, 2013 5:31 pm
On the face of it, Purcell’s late 17th-century romantic tragedy and Bartók’s early 20th-century Symbolist drama have nothing in common, other than their concision. In one a classical queen falls in love with a fugitive hero before being perfunctorily abandoned. In the other a bride dares to probe her husband’s psyche – with discomfiting results. Language, architecture, expression come from different worlds. But, as Barrie Kosky underlines in his staging for the Frankfurt Opera, the two pieces belong together almost like the sexes – their very differences intensifying their creative embrace.
You might think that, in an age of proliferating co-productions, the point of transporting a company from one part of Europe to a festival in another would be negated. Surely opera has become an international melting pot? It is certainly easier today to hop on a flight to a German city than it was in the 1960s, when German opera companies started visiting the Edinburgh International Festival, but this Frankfurt double-bill underlines how big the cultural differences remain. No British company would dare portray Purcell’s opera with such emotional freedom, or Bartók’s with such visual austerity. They just couldn’t afford the risk.
By confining Dido beneath a dazzlingly striped front-of-stage screen and emphasising the tiniest movement, Kosky and his designers, Katrin Lea Tag and Joachim Klein, ratcheted up the intensity. The ensemble scenes veered towards caricature, and the cross-dressing witches were over the top, but there was an emotional truthfulness to Paula Murrihy’s Dido and Sebastian Geyer’s Aeneas, accentuated by the baroque manners of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra under Constantinos Carydis.
In Bluebeard , musically rich where Dido had been spare, the protagonists were isolated on a vast, bare, circular platform. No doors, no keys, no colour – and no shortage of psychological claustrophobia, despite Kosky’s quirky introduction of three Bluebeard lookalikes representing the weapons, treasures and flowers of his domain. Far from exuding menace, Robert Hayward’s business-suited anti-hero trembled like a victim, while Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s Judit had a predatory air. Was this a metaphor for modern sexual politics, both parties reluctantly locked in a cycle of interdependency? Like Bartók, Kosky kept us guessing.
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