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PREVIEW | Diving Into Against The Grain Theatre’s Production Of Bluebeard’s Castle

By Arthur Kaptainis on March 21, 2023

Bluebeard's Castle (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic, courtesy of the Theatre of Sound)
Bluebeard’s Castle (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic, courtesy of the Theatre of Sound)

In Toronto no less than elsewhere, opera fans are accustomed to seeing classics updated, relocated and otherwise rendered distant from the setting specified by the librettist and composer.

Few productions take the original scenario quite as far afield as the version of Bluebeard’s Castle to be mounted by Against the Grain Theatre on March 29 (with repeats on March 31 and April 1) in the Harbourfront Centre.

Instead of the dank, dark fortress of Bartók’s one-act masterpiece of 1911, the action (or, more accurately, dialogue) takes place in what looks like a living room. Instead of seven doors, behind which lurk revelations fair and foul, we see a trunk containing mementos of a long life.

And, instead of a gloomy self-made widower, Bluebeard is a contemporary husband interacting sympathetically with his wife, Judith, who is suffering from dementia.

Charlotte Hellekant and Gerald Finley in Bluebeard's Castle (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic, courtesy of the Theatre of Sound)
Charlotte Hellekant and Gerald Finley in Bluebeard’s Castle (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic, courtesy of the Theatre of Sound)

All this might seem an odd fit with the text by Béla Balázs, translated from the Hungarian by Daisy Evans, director of the 2021 London production by the British company Theatre of Sound.

“I have kept it as close to the original as possible,” Evans wrote by email from overseas. “As a largely symbolic and poetic libretto in the first place, it allows us to be freer with the interpretation on stage.”

Much of the libretto has update potential. Lines like, “I’m waiting, Judith, waiting” are not hard to situate in a modern context. “Now all is darkness” is Bluebeard’s appropriate valedictory comment after Judith joins silent-role representations of herself in earlier times (rather than the duke’s deceased former wives).

The famous fifth door, revealing Bluebeard’s spacious kingdom with a blast of C Major sonority, in this version represents, as Evans says, “everything he is proud of, everything he feels represents all his happiness and achievements.” Thus, we see the family (“River” and “Meadow” are the interpolated children) on a joyful Christmas morning.

One element of the 1911 Bluebeard story that might seem hard to reconcile with the dementia rewrite is Judith’s increasing awareness of her surroundings and situation.

“Dementia is a condition that affects people differently,” Evans says. “As a progressive illness, it isn’t always clear how and what a patient is experiencing in their mental state.

“The creative team all have personal experiences of loved ones going through the process, and we did a lot of research into case studies and stories from other places. What’s clear is that it is not a clean-cut set of symptoms. No person living with the condition is simply ‘lost’ or ‘out of it.’

“What we wanted to show is how lucid and close Judith comes to remembering, and what bittersweet joy those moments are when someone looks at a picture and has a crystal-clear emotional response.

“This Bluebeard is also a story about the two of them, so a lot of the darkness, pain and sadness pertains to Bluebeard the lover, the husband, and the carer who is left alone in a castle of memories only he has a connection to.”

Bluebeard's Castle (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic, courtesy of the Theatre of Sound)
Bluebeard’s Castle (Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic, courtesy of the Theatre of Sound)

Bartók’s enormous orchestra has been reduced to a chamber ensemble by Stephen Higgins. Toronto musicians are in the pit. Remarkably, not a bar of the score is lost. The conductor is coming to Toronto along with Evans and two other members of the London creative team to oversee the revival.

Bluebeard is played by the British-based Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who sang the role in the London production. The Swedish soprano Charlotte Hellekant is Judith.

While the Toronto show is in essence what was seen in London, Against the Grain will build its own domestic set. “We wanted to have a set that makes sense in the space,” said AtG general director Robin Whiffen, referring to the 441-seat Fleck Dance Theatre. The three performances are the first by the company for a live audience since 2019.

Evans has little time for the argument that Bluebeard’s Castle is a great opera as it is and needs no revision.

“I think art is a form that shifts, changes, and reveals new thoughts all the time,” she says. “You can see these great works in so many different forms.”

Are there any other operas that she plans to rework?

“All of them! In seriousness: We do have some plans afoot, some very exciting 20th-century repertoire.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, as adapted by Daisy Evans, is presented by Against the Grain Theatre on March 29 and 31 at 7:30 p.m. and April 1 at 1:30 p.m. at the Fleck Dance Theatre, 207 Queens Quay W. Tickets here.


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Arthur Kaptainis
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