In her book Bluebeard's Legacy: Death and Secrets from Bartók to Hitchcock, Victoria Anderson quotes a brief exchange from Jane Campion's film In the Cut. Shocked by her students' boredom with the subtleties of To the Lighthouse, a professor obsessed by a serial killer asks, "How many dead women does it take to make a good story?" At least three, is the answer.
Bartók's opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, meets this requirement exactly, raising the body count to four with the fall of the curtain. In other versions of the story, the number of dead wives rises to seven, though the heroine escapes, chastened for her curiosity but rewarded with a handsome inheritance. Real-life sex crimes seldom end so neatly. Today, Mrs Bluebeard would have to write a misery memoir if she wanted to live well. Yet Charles Perrault's nursery nasty exerts a remarkable hold on our imagination. As the folklorist Maria Tatar points out, Bluebeard is the only fairy tale to begin, rather than end, with marriage, for which read sex.
Shorn of its spoken prelude, Bartók's Bluebeard forms the first half of an English National Opera double bill linked by sex and death. Daniel Kramer's staging opens in film noir fashion, on a lamplit, foggy street. Barefoot in a white prom dress, here is Judith (Michaela Martens), pressing her husband for kisses and caresses, then furtively pausing to stroke her belly. This swift, secretive gesture – synchronised to the first quickening of the oboes – indicates early pregnancy, though the father seems unlikely to be Bluebeard (Clive Bayley). Fingers splayed, head held back from his wife's eager mouth, his attitude is that of a man repelled by female appetites, his castle a concrete cellar, his dress and facial hair those of Amstetten's most famous son, Josef Fritzl.
If the intention is to deglamorise Bluebeard, distinguishing him from Maxim de Winter, Mr Rochester and other literary hunks with a murky past, Kramer succeeds. Where Bartok's score suggests power, terror, mystery and, above all, sorrow, what lies behind these doors is tawdry and obscene: a rickety torture chamber of primary-coloured bricks; two mannequins (a nod to Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux) in costumes from the era of Austro-Hungarian supremacy; a series of rough graves, and, at the violent blaze of the fifth door's C major chord, nine brutalised children, one clutching the newborn offspring of incestuous rape.
Lit with vaudevillian relish by Peter Mumford, Bayley capers across Giles Cadle's sordid, claustrophobic set, petting the littlest boy. "Are you frightened?" he sings, to us as much as to Judith. No. But I am repelled. Clearly three dead women aren't enough to make a good story. For when the wives behind the seventh door are revealed as bludgeoned brood mares, briefly reunited with their children, then made to lie spread-legged with bloodied thighs as Bluebeard prepares to penetrate Judith's vagina with a sabre (a pornographic flourish borrowed from D M Thomas's The White Hotel), its tip poised as the lights go down, a line is crossed that no excellence of musicianship or stagecraft can mitigate.
As profoundly distressing as the 10-minute gang rape that concludes Peter Greenaway's film The Baby of Mâcon, and as gratuitous as The White Hotel's Freudian riff on Babi Yar, Kramer's innovation cannot hide behind the paper skirts of crypto-feminism. If his argument is that we have lost the ability to be shocked by the strangling or stabbing of women, the rape-with-a-sword finale will leave future directors scrabbling for cruelty yet more baroque. However exquisitely observed the interaction between the silent children, however richly layered the characterisation of Martens's Judith, Kramer has closed the doors of symbolism and opened those of snuff porn. Yes, appalling horror can occur at the most nondescript addresses, from Amstetten to Gloucester, Marcinelle to Sheffield. But it is difficult to see what this re-imagining adds to our understanding of Bartók's opera, the myth of Bluebeard, or the victims of Fritzl, West, Dutroux or Mr X.
It was hard to concentrate on Edward Gardner's conducting, though the strings were lean and moist, the brass tight, the woodwind bleak, the whole suspenseful. Furthermore, there was a decisive difference in tone between Bluebeard and The Rite of Spring, staged by Michael Keegan-Dolan as a paganised Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival (and reviewed by our dance critic overleaf).
Stravinsky's score acquires new energy in a dry, theatrical acoustic and the sound was thick and aromatic from the opening bassoon solo – my understanding of which was enhanced by the Philharmonia's multimedia installation re-rite. Set out over three floors of the Bargehouse, on Oxo Tower Wharf, re-rite allows the curious to wander from room to room, listening to different sections of the orchestra play this brutal masterpiece while following the individual parts left on music stands. No nasty surprises here, just a series of films shot from the perspectives of the players, and, for the brave, a chance to beat the bass drum to a video click-track. Free of charge, no booking required, re-rite closes today.
ENO double bill: to 28 Nov (0871 911 0200)