Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill’s last appearance with Scottish Opera was in 2009, so the big attraction for many was to hear her first Judith in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle marking her welcome return to Theatre Royal. In an innovative collaboration, Scottish Opera and Vanishing Point Theatre commissioned a new work to pair with the Bartók, with composer-in-residence Lliam Paterson and Vanishing Point’s director Matthew Lenton co-creating The 8th Door, here performed as an abstract and mysterious prequel.

Karen Cargill (Judith) © Mihaela Bodlovic
Karen Cargill (Judith)
© Mihaela Bodlovic

Two actors, Gresa Pallaska and Robert Jack sit on stage facing away from us in front of cameras, their faces appearing on a huge projection screen, conference style. They talk, although we cannot hear what they say, enjoy a drink of wine, and he gives her a yellow flower. Their expressions tell us that their relationship has gone terminally wrong, and once the man has left, the woman walks off into a stream of light. Is she Judith on her way to meet Bluebeard? If the visuals were ultimately baffling, things were much happier in the pit, where a smallish orchestra conducted by Sian Edwards and a lightly amplified sextet of valiant young singers created a vibrant and ethereal sound world. Making sense of the libretto, which mainly used text from Hungarian poets translated by Edwin Morgan, was a challenge, but best summed up by the closing “No stars so far apart as two human souls”. The vocal textures were really interesting with the singers taking solos or densely weaving a choral tapestry with the music, breathing close into their microphones, whispering and sometimes shouting when not singing. Emily Vine’s soprano soared above the orchestra and Daniel Keating Roberts lovely countertenor was a highlight. Vanishing Point sets out to be different, but The 8th Door visually, textually and musically did not quite match up into a cohesive opera. Paterson is a young composer, and on this performance, very much one to watch.

Robert Hayward (Bluebeard) © Mihaela Bodlovic
Robert Hayward (Bluebeard)
© Mihaela Bodlovic

Robert Jack returned to give the Prologue to Bartók’s taut psychological drama Bluebeard’s Castle, the black curtain slowly rising to reveal Kai Fischer’s modern apartment set marooned on the dark stage. A bookcase, desk with open laptop, scattered pot plants and a brown leather squidgy sofa created an everyday atmosphere, but with Edwards immediately notching up the tension from the huge orchestra, the scene was set for Bluebeard’s sinister mind games with Judith, his latest wife. Robert Hayward, no stranger to the role of Bluebeard, and Karen Cargill both shambled onto the set barefoot in nighttime attire, stepping into the dim apartment, Bluebeard’s Castle in this production. Singing in Hungarian, Hayward’s strong bass-baritone was tinged with shades of grey, a man hiding dark secrets behind his seven doors.

Gresa Pallaska in <i>The 8th Door</i> © Mihaela Bodlovic
Gresa Pallaska in The 8th Door
© Mihaela Bodlovic

Cargill’s performance as Judith, caught in a terminal nightmare, was immensely powerful, her horror escalating as damp walls of the room gave way to blood on her hands from weapons in the armoury and on the treasures. Wiping the blood on Bluebeard’s increasingly grubby white T shirt, she pleads for more doors to be opened to let some light and air into the place. Director Matthew Linton made the first six doors representational: the laptop suddenly blood-red for the torture chamber, shards of glass for weapons, a falling curtain of golden sand for the treasures and plants from The 8th Door sprouting out of the sofa for the secret garden. We all wait for the glorious Fifth Door to be opened and Bluebeard’s kingdom was indeed magnificent, the huge C major chord with thundering organ and extra brass in the auditorium boxes splitting the set apart. The sorrowful pool of tears looked a bit like the Northern Lights, but the only actual door with a key revealed three beautiful wives found at morning, noon and evening emerging from the doorway and through the kneehole in the desk, Judith’s horror profound as she realised she completed the set as ‘midnight’. Cargill and Hayward were well matched although the cramped set rather limited direction, Judith time and again bending forwards holding out bloody hands or desperately clutching Bluebeard, wheedling those door keys from him.

Sian Edwards brought an immensely impressive performance from the orchestra, every door matched by its own sound world from darkness into light, but deliciously brooding with menace. Musically, it is a truly spellbinding piece. In an evening of two very different halves, full marks go to Scottish Opera in having the confidence to be innovative and explore new things collaboratively.