Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival 2013 classical review: Dido and Aeneas/Bluebeard's Castle: Lament for broken-hearted heroines

Tormented like Bartok's Mrs Bluebeard, or bereft like Purcell's Dido, it's been a tough week for the women of opera

Push! Pull! Buckle! Shriek! In Barrie Kosky's Oper Frankfurt double bill of Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard's Castle, the characters of Henry Purcell's Restoration tragedy and Bela Bartok's Freudian fairytale freeze in crisis: fingers splayed, bodies jack-knifed, lungs bursting, lips pulled back in silent screams. All are human and all are monsters, from sycophantic courtier to insecure wife, feckless hero to multiple murderer.

These operas have more in common than their composers' audacious compression of ancient stories. There is the steady circularity of musical structures, in the sighing chromatic repetitions of Purcell's bass lines, and the slow creep of Bartók's journey from his first morbid shiver of F sharp to the blaze of C and back again. And there is the identification of a moment in which love is damaged beyond repair.

Opera-lovers with an eye for cheap flights may have seen Kosky's double bill in Germany. For the rest of us, the Edinburgh International Festival was the only chance to see this remarkable pairing, one work scored for a lithe ensemble of violins, oboe, recorder, organ and harpsichord, and decorated with wild trills and violent glissandi under Constantinos Carydis, the other written for an orchestra as vast as the castle and estate it describes.

In Katrin Lea Tag's designs, Paula Murrihy's Dido is a traumatised Infanta in powder-pink frills, Carthage a shallow, shuttered corridor, its people Biedermeier grotesques and predatory artists' models. The bearded Sorceress and Witches (counter-tenors Martin Wölfel, Dmitry Egorov and Roland Schneider) are cross-dressing Jacobeans, and Dido's love affair with Aeneas (Sebastian Geyer) is crudely manipulated. The choral singing is arch and mannered, Dido's lament is a limpid gasp of abandon, her closing sobs ugly and raw. We know she will meet Aeneas again in the Underworld, with the other suicides, long-suffering wives and sexual compulsives of the Aeneid. She does not.

In Bluebeard's Castle, a huge, slanting revolve is revealed. There are no doors, no keys, just the "empty room" of a cold, dead heart. As the oboes quicken, Robert Hayward's Bluebeard and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's Judith are locked in collision, her head buried in his shoulder, his mouth open and agonised. The gestures are spare and impactful: a sudden rush of feet, an ecstatic spiral of gold glitter in the air, lengths of wet foliage birthed from the sleeves of Bluebeard's suit by his greedy, impulsive wife, a steady trickle of tears, a volcanic cloud of vapour, a bright flower of blood on a white shirt, a slow dance of body doubles, man and wife.

As cool as his Purcell was hot and idiosyncratic, Carydis's Bartók impressed, with Baumgartner electric in her shriek of wonder at the opening of the Fifth Door, and Hayward aghast, condemned to an eternity of repetitions.

I had hoped to close this column with an Offenbach gallop or a devil-may-care brindisi, all high-kicks and champagne. Instead, with the great "Yes!" of Prom 49's Eroica still fresh in my ears, we have Handel Furioso (Arcola Theatre, London ***), a poignant pasticcio from Isle of Noise and Sounds Baroque at the Grimeborn festival in north London.

Conceived by director Max Hoehn and harpsichordist Julian Perkins, with a score plundered from Alcina, Ariodante, Deidamia, Poro, Rinaldo, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno and two of the delicious chamber duets which Handel wrote in Rome, this slender, tender romance charts the love between an unnamed girl (Robyn Allegra Parton) and boy (Anna Starushkevych) from childhood infatuation to marriage, separation and reconciliation, as the now elderly woman returns to nurse her dying husband.

Where the Armonico Consort's 2011 romcom Too Hot to Handel marshalled its resources cleverly, Handel Furioso is awkwardly balanced, each aria and duet describing an extremity of bliss, outrage or sorrow disproportionate to the intimacy of the setting. The oboes battled the tropical humidity of the Arcola Theatre in Hackney with little success, yet Parton's sweet, soubrettish soprano, Starushkevych's dark, versatile mezzo and Perkins's dynamic direction of the single strings and theorbo ensemble combined to stylish and sincere effect.

A love story that had begun with the carefree coloratura and enraptured suspensions of "Tanti strali" ended with "Tu del ciel ministro eletto", the most serene of Handel's great arias, sung here as a valediction by a newly widowed woman, minus the counter-argument of the middle section and the consoling balm of the da capo repeat. It was an odd place to stop, the perfect symmetry of an A-B-A form reduced to a brief, bereft adieu.

Critic's Choice

The last week of the 2013 BBC Proms includes John Dowland's music for voice, lute and viols from Ian Bostridge, Elizabeth Kenny and Fretwork (Mon lunchtime), performances by Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic (Mon and Tues), a Verdi recital from Joseph Calleja and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano (Thurs) and late-night Schubert from Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis (Thurs). Heads roll as Welsh National Opera's season of Donizetti's Tudor operas opens with Alessandro Talevi's production of Anna Bolena (Sat), at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.

 

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