Irish National Opera and RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on 12 October 2018

The buzz in the Gaiety Theatre is palpable even before entering the auditorium. A new production of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is a significant event anywhere, but tonight is the stage premiere of this work in Ireland (as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival). A whole century after its first performance in wartime Budapest, and over fifty years since it was last heard here in a concert performance, this moment has taken a while but better late than never.

After the familiar works of its opening productions, Irish National Opera now strays into the ‘more challenging’ end of the opera spectrum with one of the great works of the early 20th century. Béla Bartók poses many questions with this opera, and wraps it all together with an extraordinary orchestral score. It’s an intense experience, like sand-blasting for the soul. Where even to begin?

The set (designed by Jamie Vartan) is what might be called dumpster-chic – part of a big grey wall, concrete rubble, an elegant cream sofa, and a drinks trolley, as if the inhabitants are coping with a building restoration job that’s gone terribly wrong. The symbolism is strong: interpret the incompleteness as you will. Béla Balasz’s libretto strips the original fairytale of Bluebeard of all extraneous details and leaves us with the bare necessities: a man, a house with many doors and too many secrets, and a woman.

Love is in the air, and Bluebeard (Joshua Bloom) has drawn a new woman, called Judith (Paula Murrihy) into his life. In the psychodrama of the ensuing hour, she will express her devotion by calling on all the ‘doors’ to be opened, to expose truth, even at the risk of losing herself in it. The music is rich and vibrant, full of exquisite colour, a masterpiece of orchestration that is set alight by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (conducted by André de Ridder) in top form.

As ritual, expressionist theatre, the action of Bluebeard’s Castle progresses as a sequence of openings, within a story that has no end or beginning. Paula Murrihy as Judith is a marvel to behold, giving an impassioned and physically-committed performance, her voice rich and expressive, full of colour. Bloom’s powerful bass is an effective foil, and the two are a strong combination. At times the characters’ stage actions seem exaggerated, but the stylisation of the work makes this inevitable.

As with The Second Violinist, director Enda Walsh draws on video art (design by Jack Phelan), combined with Adam Silverman’s keen lighting design, to add extra dimensions to the story-telling – in effect simply re-interpreting the headiness of the original stage directions. What would seem heavy-handed imagery in other contexts is here simply another layer of theatrical shaping, reflecting the work’s dream-like sensibility.

After visions of horror, tainted wealth, and tender sorrow, the final, forbidden door reveals Bluebeard’s former wives, mute Miss Havishams in old ball-gowns, with pearls and tiaras, before the entire set is raised to reveal other, hidden figures, whose stories remain untold. The promise of opera – so often missed – is to dare to bring art-forms together and find new ways to ask the hard old questions. This production does that, and deserves to be seen.

Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle
Sung in Hungarian (libretto by Béla Balasz), with English surtitles
Produced by Irish National Opera in association with Dublin Theatre Festival
Director: Enda Walsh; Set & Costume Designer: Jamie Vartan; Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman; Video Design: Jack Phelan; Conductor: André de Ridder
Cast: Joshua Bloom (Bluebeard); Paula Murrihy (Judith)
RTÉ Concert Orchestra

Photography by Pat Redmond