"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Bartók: 'Not for the Faint-Hearted'

Bartók's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" currently being staged by the English National Opera at The Coliseum and paired in a double bill with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" – that score still breathtaking after all these years – is a powerful work, dramatically and musically, and everyone acquits themselves well has been the general opinion.

Based on Perrault's fairy tale about a woman fatally drawn into the orbit of an evil man, it's a grisly tale but the staging by Daniel Kramer concentrates on the sexual violence and his climax is particularly unpleasant and disturbing. The crowd loved it of course as they always do and the whistling and joyful stamping of feet that accompanied the closing image of a woman's genitals on the point of being attacked by Bluebeard's drawn sword, knew no bounds. One shouldn't read too much into this, perhaps, and it's worth remembering Patrick White's acid comment about theatrical audiences "suffering from the clap". Moreover, violence against women is so much an integral part of popular culture that one can't expect the desperately crowd-pleasing opera managements to buck lucrative trends. I was nevertheless glad to see that at least one critic had the courage to challenge this scene which The Guardian blandly called "not for the faint-hearted". In the Independent on Sunday Anna Picard pointed out that this "pornographic flourish" was what it was and said: "a line is crossed that no excellence of musicianship or stagecraft can mitigate". Even if you don't agree it is good to see a critic having the independence of mind to dissent.


Tim Kendall said...

I will own up to loving Bluebeard's Castle. It's creepy, it's draining, and it's a long way from La Traviata. (Which isn't to say that I don't love La Traviata, too.) I haven't seen the ENO production, but certainly there's nothing in the score/libretto to justify the scenes which you and Anna Picard find repellent. I would have thought that explicit sexual violence would most likely have a disastrous dramatic effect: disgust would alleviate terror.

Nicholas Murray said...

Tim, I love the work of course, and. as Picard points out, its ambiguities and complexities give so much scope for creative interpretation that we simply don't need this kind of misplaced attention-seeking.