Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Coliseum, London

re-rite, Bargehouse, London

For offences against women, this director outdoes the villain himself

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent