Freud knew something about fear. Not the sudden shock of terror, but the creeping, sickening, slow-burn horror of the uncanny. A haunted house might make us jump, but how much more pervasive is that fear when the house is our own home, the monsters our own family, our own self even? It’s when the familiar becomes the unfamiliar, when the telephone call is coming from inside our own psyche, that the chills really build.
Bartok knew this too. ‘Where is the stage — outside or within?’ asks the spoken Prologue to his one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle — the young composer’s take on the classic fairytale of a curious wife, her mysterious new husband and his many locked doors. It’s a piece that was originally judged unstageable — an opera with no action —and though history has overturned that verdict it’s a work that still has its greatest impact in the concert hall where we’re not forced to choose, where the drama plays out both inside and outside simultaneously.
Making his role debut in these two concert performances by the Orchestra of Opera North and conductor Sian Edwards, Christopher Purves is a disquieting Bluebeard. In the run-up to the concerts Opera North reminded us that the English bass-baritone has a long history with villains: Méphistophélès, Scarpia, Nick Shadow, the controlling Protector in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Perhaps it was a double-bluff, because what makes Purves’s performance here so uncanny is that he plays Bluebeard as a good guy, a romantic hero manqué.
Dark, warm and woody-soft of tone, coaxing his young bride Judith (Karen Cargill) with fragments of remembered folk melodies, yielding gently to her more unpredictable, chromatic demands, Purves finds unexpected sweetness in Bartok’s score. How much more chilling to croon and caress while underneath the orchestra rattles, shivers and shrieks, to sustain hope right up until the opening of that final door.
It’s a performance enabled by Cargill’s sumptuous Judith — a sensuous, assertive woman rather than a naive innocent, more than a match for her husband. Cargill’s generous mezzo overflows into the music, filling its furrows and warming the often chilly surface. But it’s conductor Sian Edwards and the orchestra who are the chief storytellers here, who paint the blood on to the castle walls in thick smears of contrabassoon and bass clarinet, who dazzle us with the sudden, blinding C major vista behind the fifth door and set the lake of tears rippling in shivers of harp and flute.
With Janacek’s Sinfonietta a thrilling curtain-raiser — all those extra brass players raised high up above the strings in Huddersfield’s steeply raked Town Hall — this was one hell of a concert. In any normal week it would have been the stand-out, but with conductor Edward Gardner reunited with tenor Stuart Skelton for a concert staging of Peter Grimes it had serious competition.
In August last year I wrote here that the Bergen Philharmonic’s Peter Grimes at the Edinburgh Festival was the best I’d ever seen. I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm, because 18 months on and the project has returned not just for repeat performances in Bergen, Oslo and the Royal Festival Hall, but also a studio recording shortly to be released on Chandos. It’s a recording that will bear witness to an era-defining partnership UK audiences have seen develop over the past decade, from ENO to the Proms, Edinburgh, Bergen and beyond.
Skelton and Gardner have grown together in this music, and the Grimes they gave us here was the result. From awkward, ungainly outsider, Skelton’s Grimes has matured into a portrait of trauma and mental illness that is almost unwatchably painful. Broken from the start, haunted by memories of the ‘childish death’ of his first apprentice, he clutches and frets at his face and clothing in a desperate attempt to self-soothe.
Framed on three sides by the 200-strong chorus (the combined forces of Bergen’s Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor and Collegium Musicum as well as students from the RNCM) who sit like a jury and sing like a judge high above the stage, the action plays out under the eye of its community, always watched, overlooked. Britten’s Borough bullies and misfits sit just the right side of caricature in Vera Rostin Wexelsen’s telling semi-staging, from the self-satisfied piety of James Gilchrist’s Reverend Adams to the life-battered cynicism of Susan Bickley’s Auntie, there’s a story hinted at in each.
Erin Wall’s sleek soprano is balm to the torn and splintered edges of Skelton’s Grimes. There’s power here but no consolation even in the heady reverie of ‘Now the Great Bear’, where the line is always on the edge of collapse. This isn’t singing any more, it’s acting with the voice — ugly, dangerous, devastating. And beneath all this Gardner’s orchestra powers forward, driving us on to a tragedy that, Wexelsen’s final gesture tells us, isn’t really Grimes’s or even the Borough’s, but our own.