ENO Response 2023/24: Duke Bluebeard's Castle

16th April 2024 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

Closing the 2023/24 Season, the English National Opera presents a semi-staged concert performance of Béla Bartók’s gripping psychodrama Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the London Coliseum.

The one-act opera, based on Charles Perrault’s French folk-horror, sees the Duke introducing his new wife Judith to her foreboding new home where terrible secrets hide within. This operatic masterpiece is as taut and gripping as a thriller and presents a powerful story that insights thought as well as suspense.

This new semi-staged concert performance is the first ENO performance of the work in 15 years and will be performed in Hungarian, the original language, with English surtitles displayed above the stage.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Libretto by Béla Balázs

Conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya
Director, Joe Hill-Gibbins

ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.

Oscar Cunnington
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; The nightmare of relationships laid bare

Sometimes less really is more. Bela Bartok’s 1918 barely hour-long psychological thriller of an opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is ample proof of that. So too, is ENO’s new “semi-staged” production that showed how stripping back the frippery can expose the soul of a piece that much more effectively.

The premise is taut. Duke Bluebeard has invited new wife Judith back to his titular castle and she can’t resist nosing through his seven locked rooms as he reluctantly grants her the keys to each. Among other things, she finds an armoury, riches, and beautiful flowers as she plumbs the depths of Bluebeard’s property and personality.

It’s a delightfully simple yet ambiguous metaphor for the morbid fascination inherent in excavating a romantic partner’s past and personality and your reading of its show-stopping conclusion will likely be inflected by your own experiences there.

The stripped back staging in Director Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production was a long table lined by a row of chairs that wouldn’t have been out of place in any school assembly up and down the country. But the masterclass here was in improvisation.

Mezzo-soprano Allison Cook was unable to play lead character Judith and Jennifer Johnston was brought in with just a couple of hours to rehearse. Rather than hiding in the wings, she was a constant, unmoving presence on stage alongside plucky Staff Director Crispin Lord who embodied Judith’s movements. The change felt almost deliberate. Separating the mind and the body into two corporal performances rendered Judith’s conflicting fascination and horror at each of Bluebeard’s depravities even more stark.

Lord gamely threw himself into it; writhing and skulking across the stage with Johnston’s powerful voice contextualising his every step. The former’s androgyny added fascinating layers to the push and pull of intimacy between the married couple. It helped that bass John Relyea as Bluebeard, fresh off his masterful turn as Sarastro in ENO’s recent revival of The Magic Flute, brought a vocally and physically imposing presence. His deep bass juddered between terrifying cruelty and painful remorse as his psyche was unravelled by Judith’s discoveries.

Designer Rosanna Vize’s simple staging served the performers well. Firefly-like glitter and an overfilling wine glass were light touch and effective production pieces that let the performers’ emotions take centre-stage. That included Leo Bill as a snivelling butler, constantly lurking around and sometimes literally lighting up proceedings.

But the ebb and flow of the increasingly tempestuous relationship was ultimately dictated by conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. Her wilful direction helped produce a groaning passion from the players, swelling in and out to breathe tension and a car crash quality to Judith and Blubeard’s relationship from which one couldn’t look away. It culminated in one of this ENO season’s best single moments, as the shocking conclusion is revealed in a bravura of music and staging that are worth the admission alone.


Chloe Sit
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the ENO – sexy, surreal, sinister

The final opera of the current ENO season, Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is dramatic, moving, and all-around remarkable, especially considering the unique circumstances of the opening night.

With Allison Cook withdrawing from the performance due to illness, the part of Judith was acted by staff director Crispin Lord, whose androgynous look brought an unusual twist to the romantic pairing. His mute determination and increasingly bloodied silk dress made for a lithe and beautifully chilling Judith, both victim and aggressor on the path of unveiling Bluebeard’s disturbing past. Meanwhile, the role was sung by the formidable Jennifer Johnston, fully integrated as Lord’s white-gowned vocal counterpart. Though this split was distracting at times, it certainly made for an interesting parallel to Prologue actor Leo Bill, who delivered props and held up stage lights as Bluebeard’s alter ego. The libretto was sung in the original Hungarian, a rather odd choice for an opera company whose raison d’etre is opera in English, that came with out-of-place English surtitles, enlarged on a screen that took up a third of the stage’s height.

The tale itself is wonderfully intense, carried by masterful staging and harsh contrasts in lighting (Ian Jackson-French). The curtains open on a brightly illuminated long wedding table, with Duke Bluebeard and his newlywed Judith on either side. Judith demands that he open the seven forbidden doors of his castle, each reluctant revelation bringing an unsettling piece of his past to light.

Set designer Rosanna Vize conveys the contents behind each door with ingenious symbols – the blood of his torture chamber is bottles of wine poured into an overflowing glass, stacks of cutlery violently pile up to form an armoury, and a glittering show of gold confetti thrown out of a box creates the illusion of a treasury. Each display is more dramatic and shattering than the last, leaving the pristine table in a sticky mess of blood, knives, and flowers. The opening of the final door is the most chilling of all, revealing a row of still, veiled wives in their wedding dresses.

John Relyea contributes much to the mystique of the production, his rich bass channelling a monstrous yet genuinely vulnerable Bluebeard. His performance was a powerful match with Jennifer Johnston’s, whose incredible vocal power and profound emotion were exceptionally impressive with only two hours for her to rehearse and fill in for Cook.

Lidiya Yankovskaya’s conducting is excellent, perfectly controlling the tension of the piece with well-placed silences and sudden thunderings of instrumentals. Triumphant brass, poignant strings, and velvety woodwind paint a vivid vision of Bluebeard’s kingdom, as magnificent and terrifying as the Duke. A stunning blend of cast, music, and staging, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a fantastic, unforgettable curtain close to the season.


Jack Reilly
Sexually charged psychodrama delivers on all the musical thrills

The phrase “semi-staged concert” has a multitude of meanings, and can very well invoke the stuffy world of singers in dinner jackets all neatly lined up. For Joe Hill-Gibbins, it means something intensely theatrical, of beautiful and intricate choreography, in his vision of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

Certainly, his resources are minimal compared to what one expects of a fully blown ENO production. Designer Rosanna Vize limits her set dressing to a singular long table with accompanying plastic chairs, with only a plain black backdrop veiling the Coliseum’s inner workings. The castle’s seven doors that the reluctant Bluebeard opens at the insistence of his newly wed bride have no physical manifestation on stage. Rather, they are represented symbolically via striking theatrical images that sear themselves into the mind, as much as the unanswered questions of Bartok and Balazs’ 1918 one-act psychodrama imprint themselves also. Infinitely overflowing goblets of blood, mountains of flora, littered gold confetti, such images threaten to drown the stage in sensual excess.

The concert’s theatricality is increased by a happy little accident; mezzo-soprano Allison Cook, forced to drop out at the eleventh hour due to illness, was replaced by two figures in the role of Judith – soprano Jennifer Johnston sings the role centre-stage (not from the side of the stage as is usual in such circumstances) while ENO staff director Crispin Lord walks the part. Eerily androgenous in a long silken skirt and tank-top, Lord moves with a balletic sensuality; the physicality shared between Lord and John Relyea’s Bluebeard is impassioned and erotic. The emergency casting also reveals an accidental masterstroke of foreshadowing, as Judith’s body and voice are disembodied from one another, presaging the eternal silence forced upon Judith at the drama’s close.

Of the two singers’ performances there is much to praise. Johnston’s Judith can be terrifyingly insistent in her demands, and at the next instant so sweetly coy. For only a few hours of rehearsal, her performance exudes conviction and confidence, her top C at the work’s central climax brilliant in tone and volume. Relyea presents his Bluebeard as a man powerless to stop the tragedy he knows is approaching – his is an anguished Bluebeard, furrow-eyed and retreating rather than imperious.

Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya paces the work masterfully, providing an overwhelming climax at the mid-way point of the fifth door’s opening while not allowing the remainder of the work to flag; indeed, the snarling dissonances that precede the final door’s opening are possibly even more flooring than the C major glory of Bluebeard’s vast kingdom – both left me drawing for breath.

The playing of the ENO Orchestra is everything it needs to be: fiery and brutal, gentle and silvery, anything that the drama calls for. It is fine, characterful playing, despite some off-putting intonation issues between flutes and trumpets in the treasury scene.


Hannah Bentley


Pau Hernández Santamaria
We need a full version of this

There are very few operas that have the dramatic force that Jenůfa has. It may be the rawness with which Czech composer Janáček depicts the community where the story takes place, the undeniable humanity of their characters or the permanent sadness that shrouds Jenůfa and her family; but I can’t watch any version of this opera without having a lump in my throat. David Alden, who achieved a great result with his Peter Grimes earlier this season, does it again with an excellent production that does justice to one of the best operas of the early 20th century.

I must admit, however, that it does need a little bit of help from each audience member. The first act can put many people off because its slow development and lack of clarity in some key scenes can make it seem a bit uninteresting, but as the plot goes on it improves massively and it’s impossible not to feel attached to what’s going on in stage. The ENO orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson, showcases one of its best performances so far this season. They create a mood of uncertainty and abstractness most of the time, perfectly matching the atmosphere provided by the story. Only when a true feeling is shown the music becomes extremely beautiful and emotional, as in the beginning of the second act.

Susan Bullock (Kostelnička) is one of the main reasons to see this production, as she is impeccable in everything she needs to, from her diction to her stage presence. Her first appearance exhibits an almost frightening authority and her performance during the second act won’t be forgotten for a while. Excellent singing, projection and commitment while her character fights against her own religious moral to keep what she values the most, her honour, by hiding Jenůfa during the latter’s pregnancy. Jennifer Davis (Jenůfa) displays an equally convincing depiction of a woman mistreated by society and blinded by love. The contrast between those two characters is another positive achievement of the production. The Kostelnička is a heavily damaged individual whose past experiences have turned her into a conflicted being that prefers to psychologically torture her beloved stepdaughter before losing their reputation, and Jenůfa only seeks true love and happiness with her son. Both singers are aware of those feelings and their interactions are truly engaging.

John Findon (Steva) and Richard Trey Smagur (Laca) support the action with solid performances of their roles as Jenůfa’s love interests. Smagur’s development is well-executed: he starts as a clumsy and creepy character whose envy restrict him and evolves into a noble man with genuine love towards Jenůfa. He keeps getting better vocally as the opera advances, showing a lyrical voice that travels really well.

As a whole, ENO’s Jenufa is a powerful production that manages to show all the strong points present in the material. The extreme realism is there, particularly in a superb second half where our nerves go on edge after a slightly disappointing first half.There are not many things better than an operatic drama, but one of them is real-life drama. Not long before the curtain rose at the Coliseum, mezzo-soprano Allison Cook, who was meant to sing the role of Judit in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, called in sick and threatened ENO’s last production of the season. Miraculously, Jennifer Johnston flew to London and rehearsed for a couple of hours before performing in front of a packed audience, while Crispin Lord, staff director at the ENO, walked the role.

This is even more impressive than it sounds, for Béla Bartók’s only opera is a truly complicated piece both musically and psychologically speaking. The composer adapts a classic Charles Perrault tale to the stage transforming the original material, in which Bluebeard is a mere ruthless murderer, into an intense and human drama that constitutes one of the finest pieces in Bartók’s catalogue. This semi-staged production manages to leave an emotional footprint on the audience despite the last-minute substitution, partly because of an inspired open ending which I found refreshing.

Although ENO labels this production as “semi-staged”, the dressing, acting and decoration suggest otherwise. It’s true that a full production would probably show the seven doors that Judit keeps opening in the face of Bluebeard’s despair. However, the way in which what’s behind each door gets revealed works so well visually that it feels like we are presented with an excellent staged version. For me, it goes beyond a semi-staged production and becomes something else. Leaving that aside, director Joe Hill-Gibbins has done a fantastic job with his cast and with the rhythm of the story; it speeds up and slows down exactly when the action requires so.

John Relyea (Duke Bluebeard) seems to have been born to perform this role. He was convincing as Sarastro in The Magic Flute last month but he became one with every aspect of his character. He possesses a dark and powerful voice that can be heard in all dynamics and he manages to make his role a very human one. The development of Bluebeard was perfectly encapsulated by Relyea, from a confident person to a man who regrets his past actions as he sees his true love about to run away. Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, his counterpoint, Crispin Lord (Judit), wasn’t so memorable. Nevertheless, he wasn’t too out of place considering he’s not a professional actor, and I’ve got to admit that his androgynous looks gave the whole performance an unexpected nuance.

For the last time this season, the ENO orchestra (conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya) displayed fantastic playing with many moments of a gorgeous sound, such as the opening of the fifth door. It’s impossible to understand this company without them and we can only wish them luck and respect from their management for the future.


Sophie Carlin
ENO’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle does its level best to adapt to a last-minute cast calamity

As Joe Hill-Gibbins’ Duke Bluebeard’s Castle began at the ENO, we didn’t get what anyone expected.

One of the two cast members, Allison Cook, fell ill just hours before, so Jennifer Johnston, well-versed in the role, stepped in last minute. She (understandably) just sung (onstage, with a music stand), while identically dressed ENO staff director Crispin Lord walked her character Judith’s complex choreography.

It made for a fascinating, if not always so impactful, production.

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s one-act opera comes in at a tight one hour, following Bluebeard and his new wife Judith as they explore his castle. She insists on opening its rooms, which reveal increasingly troubling things about him.

Unfortunately, splitting Judith’s gestures and vocals between two people – though, obviously, unavoidable – diminished the intensity for me. With a stripped-back set, cast size, and duration, this production should feel heady and concentrated. But having another body on stage, another thing to triangulate (do I look at Johnston, or Lord, or the surtitles?), stopped me from feeling completely absorbed in the show in the way I wanted to.

But despite this, it was certainly interesting to reflect on how the unexpected last-minute changes reshaped the show’s overriding message. The actor who delivers the Prologue (Leo Bill) acts as a kind of stagehand to Bluebeard throughout, constantly passing him props. Without two bodies representing Judith, she could seem, compared to Bluebeard, without allies onstage, pursuing her insistent door-opening alone. With Judith getting onstage reinforcement in this eleventh-hour reimagining, perhaps we see a fairer fight.

The show’s original creative vision was deeply compelling. The ENO calls it a “semi-staged concert”, but it felt more fully-fledged, like a fully-staged production that was just intentionally minimal to maximise the audience’s intense, undistracted focus on the psychodrama.

Indeed, using a long dining table centre-stage, designer Rosanna Vize turned each door into the course of a meal, each bringing an excess of an object symbolising what’s behind the door (wine for the bloodied torture chamber, cutlery for the armoury). With wine poured everywhere fifteen minutes in, the Judiths’ white clothes bore the trace of any subsequent touches – echoes of love and intimacy, stained the blood red of violence.

Johnston unleashed Judith’s famous top C with ecstasy and ease, her voice’s mix of beauty and attack encapsulating the love-violence dichotomy the show oscillates between. And John Relyea (Bluebeard) was excellently cast, dramatically capable and vocally varied enough to maintain tension and attention. He pleads with Judith to stop her door-opening using a yielding, mournful tone, punctuated by sharply enunciated consonants in a repeated “Judith”, both pressing her, and pulling on her heartstrings.

Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya drew out excellent playing from the ENO orchestra to underpin all this. She leant heavily on the strings to create a more lyrical, impressionistic rendition of Bartók’s originally spiky score, but also unleashed the musicians at points to deliver imposingly grand walls of sound. In those moments, their sheer might was palpable – I quite literally felt the music shake my bones.


Rebecca J Hall