Bartok Duke Bluebeard's Castle / Stravinsky The Rite of Spring, English National Opera, London Coliseum


Nature and nurture - and all the dark and unexpected places in between. Some - Duke Bluebeard's cellar - you may never want to return to; others might invoke smiles, even laughter. English National Opera's audacious double-bill turns expectation on its head and springs so many surprises that to write about it at all - and it isn't an easy event to capture in words - runs the risk of giving the entire game-plan away. So stop reading now if you want to keep that element of surprise intact and know that the five-star rating has as much to do with vision as accomplishment. It isn't a perfect evening - the dance half is controversial to say the least - but you come out of each "event" feeling, well, just about everything.

First to applaud is the astonishing achievement of Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra. To play both of these highly demanding and multi-faceted scores in a single evening demands stamina and artistry of a very high order. Gardner elucidates them with great precision and beauty and effectively turns the orchestra into the main protagonist of both pieces.

Daniel Kramer's extraordinarily disturbing realisation of Duke Bluebeard's Castle does not flinch from asking "who is Bluebeard?" and what terrible secrets does his dark soul conceal? Kramer wants us to feel the same fascination, the same curiosity that compels Judith, against all rational thinking, to pass through the ordinary suburban door into the ordinary terraced house Bluebeard calls his "castle" and walk into unimaginable darkness. "I will conquer all your sadness", she says. But this ordinary little man just keeps asking if she is frightened: he wants to see the fear in her eyes. The first blow is delivered as she unlocks the first door.

At the fifth, his raison d'etre is revealed like a grotesque perversion of wholesome C major and if I say think the Von Trapp family, think Josef Fritzl, your worst fears may just have been realised. It is then a brilliant reversal of the text that reveals Judith's cry of "living, they are living!" to be true when she is confronted with Bluebeard's previous loves. Clive Bayley's courageous portrait of a man stiffened by the fear of intimacy unless he controls it is deeply chilling. Michaela Martens voices the bewildering emotions of Judith's mounting horror with great sensitivity and amplitude. Kramer's final image is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

And then the voices are silenced and brute physicality takes the stage. Michael Keegan-Dolan of the dynamic Irish Dance Theatre, Fabulous Beast, has fashioned his take on Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring from the roots of his own heritage. So while an effigy of the Virgin Mary looks on, he and his earthy dancers invoke the age-old laws of procreation and the flat-capped, baggy-trousered, males that hunt in packs. The women take tea, the oversexed men wait their turn, humping the earth and lighting up another post-coital fag.

Of course, a show like this begs the questions as to how much actual dance you expect from a dance piece - and Keegan-Dolan loves playing both with and against the kinetic rhythmic energy of the music. But there is plenty here in the dying throes of yet another winter of discontent to tilt at convention and challenge traditional perceptions about the nature of masculinity. You'll never look at a bull terrier in quite the same way again. Quite an evening.

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