What's lurking behind the seven locked doors of Duke Bluebeard's castle? Most productions treat the opera as a symbol-laden psychodrama. So they don't show us, leaving the terrifying power of Bartók's music and the reactions of Bluebeard's new bride Judith to reveal the gruesome truth as, despite his warnings, she opens the doors one by one. But Daniel Kramer's brilliant new production for ENO is disturbingly graphic - and bang up to date.
Josef Fritzl would feel right at home in the bloodstained basement where Bluebeard enacts his Von Trapp happy families fantasy. All Judith's affectionate kisses can't melt his frigid heart. But as light seeps into darkened corners, and the walls of Giles Cadle's gloomy Se7en-like set gradually peel away, he hops and skips in psychopathic joy at the horrors revealed.
Clive Bayley's slasher movie villain fleshes out the enigma that is Bluebeard in a sometimes two-dimensional but always chilling way. The mystique of less explicit productions is lacking. But to compensate there's an almost unbearable tension as early clues are gathered together in a squirm-inducing, bloody and truly shocking finale that left my heart in my stomach.
Why does Judith fall for such a monster though? That key question remains unanswered. Michaela Martens conveys the forthright intelligence of a modern woman who makes her own decisions. The warmth and generosity of her ripe mezzo voice suggests experience more than innocence, and the production does nothing to indicate why she should succumb so willingly. Edward Gardner matches the busy visuals with a glittering orchestral performance that compensates with finesse for its lack of psychological depth.
Unusually, the scant 55 minutes of opera are paired with a dance piece, Stravinsky's near-contemporary Rite of Spring. Michael Keegan-Dolan's new choreography for Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is something like the 200th version, and far from the most impressive.
There can be few less palatable sights that twenty or so naked hairy men dry-humping a stage in unison, though the same men jigging around in ill-fitting frocks comes close. This, rather than the final sacrifice of the Chosen One, was the distracting visual climax of an interpretation set in an archetypal rural Ireland of flat caps, floral pinnies and endless cups of tea.
Classical ballet fans will be disappointed that the dance is mostly of the running-around variety, with a bit of folk dance thrown in. The obvious gear shifts are crudely over-emphasised; the more subtle ones are glossed over. What should be a slow-burning thirty minute ride to the climactic sacrifice is splintered by a decoy attack on the village hag and a mad dog-masked chase. There's certainly plenty going on even if it bears little relation to the music, somewhat short on visceral power under Edward Gardner's baton.